Health Care

Obama Targets Prescription Drug Shortage

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President Obama signed an executive order Monday afternoon to target shortages in certain prescription medications. The order instructs the FDA to address the shortages with more reporting about drug shortfalls, faster approval of new production, and added investigation of possible price gouging. It's one in a series of initiatives the White House is undertaking to highlight congressional inaction.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. This afternoon, President Obama signed an executive order to address prescription drug shortages. It's the latest step in the White House's We Can't Wait campaign, after other orders focusing on homeowners, veterans and college students. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the new slogan is meant to highlight the gridlock in Congress during this election season and to portray the president as a leader who gets things done.

ARI SHAPIRO: Prescription drug shortages have been getting worse lately. The Food and Drug Administration says last year there were shortages of nearly 200 drugs to treat cancer, blood pressure, severe pain and more. Congress is considering a bill to address the problem, but it's not expected to come up for a vote any time soon. So President Obama, with his new motto of We Can't Wait, took pen to paper in the Oval Office this afternoon.

President BARACK OBAMA: We'll still be calling on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that will provide additional tools to the FDA and others that can make a difference. But until they act, we will go ahead and move.

SHAPIRO: This order instructs the FDA to work with drug manufacturers so supplies don't run low. When there is a looming shortage, the FDA is supposed to speed up approval to produce more drugs. And the FDA will give prosecutors more information to go after drug makers who horde supplies or inflate prices. As commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a conference call today, this is not a cure-all.

Dr. MARGARET HAMBURG: These are all important steps, but they're steps to build on, not rest on.

SHAPIRO: And in that respect, this executive order has a lot in common with the other We Can't Wait initiatives: They're all pretty modest. Nobody expects them to bring the national unemployment rate down or pick the economy up. But former White House speechwriter Jeff Shesol understands well this is all the president can do with Republicans running half of Congress.

JEFF SHESOL: In the Clinton White House, we certainly looked for ways of getting things done when you reached an impasse with the Republican Congress. And we found, as previous presidents have found, that there are all sorts of things that you can do, and it may not be on the scale of the New Deal, and it may not be on the scale of the Great Society, but you can certainly get a lot of things done.

SHAPIRO: It's a big shift from the early years of the Obama White House, when the focus was on sweeping policy changes such as health care and the stimulus package. The president never wanted to nibble around the edges, but today, he has no choice. Sometimes, the fanfare seems to be bigger than the actual impact of these new policies. Take housing for example. President Obama flew to Las Vegas last week to announce the first step in his We Can't Wait program.

It's a plan to help homeowners refinance their mortgage loans. About 11 million Americans owe more than their house is worth. Ed DeMarco said this new program may help less than 10 percent of them. He oversees the agency that regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

EDWARD DEMARCO: While there are a number of millions of homeowners in underwater mortgages today, less than half of them are in mortgages that are owned or guaranteed by Fannie or Freddie. We have no authority over the underwater mortgages that were done through subprime lending or have been financed through private label mortgage backed securities.

SHAPIRO: DeMarco told me this change was in the works months before the White House came up with its new slogan. It was politically useful to roll out the new policy under the We Can't Wait headline. And that gives a clue about why the White House is devoting so much energy to We Can't Wait. Eric Mogilnicki was chief of staff to the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

ERIC MOGILNICKI: It sets up the election as a contrast between the administration that's doing what it can and a Congress that is, in large part, sitting on its hands during a time of economic crisis. There's some packaging to it, but I think it's smart packaging, and it's appropriate with an election looming.

SHAPIRO: Republicans recognize that strategy, and they're fighting back. In a major speech last week, Congressman Paul Ryan accused the president of bringing back the politics of division.

Representative PAUL RYAN: This is the same president who is currently campaigning against a do-nothing Congress, when in fact the House of Representatives has passed over a dozen bills to help get the economy moving, to deal with the debt, only to see the president's party kill those bills in the do-nothing Senate.

SHAPIRO: These are just the early rounds in a game of hot potato over who's to blame for the bad economy. It's a game that will continue all the way through next November. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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