Some cancer drugs are barely wasted at all. Teva Pharmaceuticals' Treanda, used to treat leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, comes in four separate dosage packages, so only 1% of the drug is typically thrown away. But with 18 of the top 20 cancer drugs sold in only one or two vial sizes, roughly 10% of the cancer drugs hospitals and doctors buy go to waste, researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center report this week in the journal BMJ. This means that Medicare, private health insurers, and cancer patients alike spend nearly $3 billion every year buying drugs that nurses and doctors throw away because of what Marketplace calls "bad packaging"—where a single vial can hold sometimes more than twice as much drug as a patient has been prescribed.
"Drug companies are quietly making billions forcing little old ladies to buy enough medicine to treat football players, and regulators have completely missed it," co-author Dr. Peter Bach tells the New York Times. "If we’re ever going to start saving money in health care, this is an obvious place to cut." The problem isn't limited to cancer drugs either, with, as one example, Johnson & Johnson's Remicade for arthritis generating $500 million a year in waste. But the study focused on cancer drugs and found that in more tightly-regulated European countries drugs must be sold in differently-sized vials. Co-author Dr. Leonard Saltz first noticed the waste when he realized the drug Keytruda was only sold in 50-milligram vials. "I thought that was really cynical—and then it got worse," he says. Last year Merck moved to 100-milligram vials only; it still sells 50-milligram vials in Europe. (A former Medicare boss said up to a third of health care spending helps no one.)