(This post has been updated.)
President Obama signed an executive order Monday instructing the Food and Drug Administration to address a growing shortage of prescription drugs that are used to treat cancer and other diseases.
The order is the latest in a series of actions that the Obama administration has announced over the past week that do not require congressional approval. The White House began taking the smaller-scale initiatives after the Senate blocked the president’s $447 billion American Jobs Act.
Although administration officials have said they intend to keep pushing Republicans to support provisions in the jobs act, the executive actions are intended to show that Obama is willing to move forward without congressional support.
The FDA has been unable to fully explain the drug shortage, which has grown more severe over the past year.
At least 232 shortages have been reported through the end of October, said Erin Fox of the University of Utah, who monitors drug shortages for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
That constitutes a record number that has included crucial drugs needed to care for cancer patients, heart attack victims, accident survivors and a host of other ill people. The shortages include some of the most commonly used drugs used in hospitals, and they have led to a spike in the cost of some medications and delays in treatment.
Obama’s executive order instructs the FDA to adopt measures to prevent price-gouging and protect consumers.
The executive order is unlikely to have any immediate effect, given that it does not address the fundamental problems causing the shortages. The causes vary from drug to drug, but experts cite a confluence of factors: Consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry has left only a few manufacturers for many older, less profitable products, meaning that when raw material runs short, equipment breaks down or government regulators crack down, the snags can quickly spiral into shortages.
The administration did not take more aggressive steps that some had suggested, such as creating a national stockpile of drugs that could be tapped to alleviate shortages.
Obama, who signed the order in the Oval Office, was joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, a pharmacy manager from Boston and a cancer patient from San Francisco.