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Schumer calls for efforts to end 'critical' cancer drug shortage

Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News

Sen. Chuck Schumer is calling on the federal government and drug manufacturer Merck to address what he called a “critical shortage” of a bladder cancer drug.

The New York Democrat spoke Monday at the University of Rochester Medical Center alongside health care providers and a bladder cancer patient, Bill Burchell.

Burchell, who lives in Webster, said he found out he had bladder cancer eight months ago. He got the news from doctors at URMC, who told him the type of cancer he had was aggressive.

But there was some good news: A drug called TICE BCG would likely be very effective against Burchell’s cancer. And then there was more bad news.

“They didn’t have any,” Burchell said.

BCG is one of many drugs that are in short supply locally and nationally. Burchell said he didn’t understand how, “in this day and age, you can just run out of a vital medication.”

“I said, ‘What do you mean it’s not available? OK. Let me see what I can do,’ ” he said. “I got a hold of a drug company in India and they were going to ship me some, but I asked my doctors and they said no.”

Next, Burchell said, he contacted Schumer’s office and staff passed Burchell’s concerns on to the senator. Schumer said he found that a federal effort to stretch the supply of the drug was falling short on a local level.

BCG is sold in vials, but not everyone needs a full vial at each treatment. At a federal level, health care providers can be reimbursed for using a partial vial. But at a local level, not all Medicare contractors allow that.

As a result, Schumer said, “unemptied vials -- half-used vials -- of this medication are being thrown away.”

Schumer said the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should clarify its stance on partially used vials. He said he wants to ensure that “every drop of this medication is being used.”

The federal agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Schumer also called on Merck to take two actions: make smaller vials of BCG so that a limited supply of the drug can be stretched further, and increase production of the drug.

In an email to WXXI News, a spokesperson for Merck said the company is “working diligently to identify ways to improve and expand the production of TICE BCG in order to produce this medicine to the best of our ability.”

Brett is the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and before landing at WXXI, he was an intern at WNYC and with Ian Urbina of the New York Times. He also produced freelance reporting work focused on health and science in New York City. Brett grew up in Bremerton, Washington, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.