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Obama targets drug shortages

WASHINGTON — President Obama is pushing federal regulators to do more to address dangerous shortages of critical medicines, sidestepping a deadlocked Congress that has not dealt with the problem.

In an executive order signed Monday, the president directed the Food and Drug Administration to press drug companies to more quickly report shortages to federal regulators, an early warning that advocates say can help mitigate shortages.

The order, which administration officials concede does not give the FDA any new authority, also ordered the agency to expedite reviews of new manufacturing facilities.

And it directed the FDA to work with the Department of Justice to step up investigation of price-gouging in the pharmaceuticals market.

"Congress has been trying since February to do something about this," Obama said at the White House. "It has not yet been able to get it done. ... We can't wait for action on the Hill."

The White House action comes amid mounting alarm among physicians, patients and others about the unavailability of some drugs to treat cancer, to control infections, even to provide basic electrolytes to patients who need intravenous feeding.

There were 178 drug shortages reported to the FDA in 2010, according to the agency. This year, federal regulators have seen a continuing surge in reported shortfalls.

Some shortages have resulted from quality problems in manufacturing. But others have been caused by drug makers' decisions to stop making some products and by an increase in demand for some drugs that outstrips supply.

Several companies and trade groups, including Hospira Inc., one of the primary makers of generic injectable prescription medicines, expressed support for the president's move.

Obama's executive order also drew praise from hospital leaders and patient advocates. Christopher W. Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, called it an "essential step."

The Republican National Committee on Monday said Obama initially ignored the drug shortages and now was trying "to look like he's doing something."

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