Conservatives often try to obstruct government inspections of hazardous industries, while progressives try to tighten policing. Last fall's nationwide tragedy caused by New England Compounding Center (NECC) shows what can happen when watchdogs are blocked.
In 1998, Congress decreed that pharmaceutical compounding centers -- small labs where special medicines are concocted for individual patients, one prescription at a time -- are exempt from safety inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Policing them was left to state-level pharmacy boards.
The "60 Minutes" program showed how the New England lab rapidly reaped million-dollar profits by using fake prescriptions and selling steroids at cheap prices. To meet the one-dose-per-prescription rule, hospitals and clinics across America sent lists of phony patient names, all of whom supposedly had been prescribed a steroid called methylprednisolone acetate.
NECC salesmen warned the clinics to stop using fake names such as John Doe or Bart Simpson. In response, some buyers copied office directories of names as make-believe patients for prescriptions.
NECC made and shipped tens of thousands of vials of the bargain-priced steroid, which hospitals injected into joints and spines of at least 14,000 pain sufferers. But the steroid had become contaminated with fungus, presumably from a construction debris recycling operation on the same property as the pharmaceutical lab.
The fungus caused meningitis and brain deaths among recipients. At least 48 died, and 720 were forced to undergo painful fungus treatment that wrecked their lives.
Barry Cadden and fellow owners of NECC withdrew $16 million in profits from the firm in a short period, then NECC filed bankruptcy. When Cadden was called before a congressional committee, he took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions. Now he's under a criminal investigation. We hope the investigation expands to clinics that sent false name lists to the Massachusetts lab.
This horror story has jolted America. Patients have been dismayed to learn that some hospitals and clinics use cheapo drugs not prepared under FDA surveillance.
When the tragedy began unfolding last October, federal health officials said only one West Virginia clinic -- Pars Interventional Pain at Parkersburg -- had ordered the suspected steroid. But 17 other Mountain State operations, including Charleston Surgical Hospital and CAMC's Teays Valley Hospital, had purchased different products from NECC. No victims were reported in this state.We hope that West Virginia's members of Congress support restoring FDA control over compounding labs, so this sickening saga won't be repeated.