Cancer's Hidden Danger: Bad Medicine?

Sharyl Attkisson is an investigative correspondent for CBS News.
I can only imagine that they tell themselves the cheap, illegally imported chemotherapy drugs are safe – that they're just as good as any of the more expensive versions that are sold legally in the United States.

That's the only thing that makes it even slightly comprehensible as to why trusted oncologists – cancer doctors – would opt to buy delicate, lifesaving I.V. chemotherapy drugs on-the-cheap from a source in which there's no way to know whether the medicine has been produced properly, transported properly or stored properly. Even if the drugs somehow could be guaranteed safe, the story is still shocking: Doctors aren't passing along the savings (for buying the cheap, imported drugs) to their ill patients. Instead, they're pocketing the profits.

How? By charging Medicare and Medicaid full price and keeping the change: As much as $1,000 per patient per treatment. There's no way to know just how many American oncologists have been taking advantage of this system. But of all the ones who have been solicited by the foreign Canadian pharmacy that sells the drugs, only one was upset enough to blow the whistle.

Dr. Suby Rao works in a busy Chicago-area practice. He knew better than to order illegally imported drugs, no matter how "cheap" they may be. He never considered ordering such medicine even for a moment. But when he struck up a conversation with a colleague and discovered that colleague was actually using the questionable medicine, it "kept him up at night." Rao says the drugs from unknown sources could be impotent, toxic, fake or contaminated. He says there's no way to know how many cancer patients may have been hurt or killed by the medicine, since casualties would likely be blamed on their cancer.

After laying awake enough nights, Dr. Rao found a way to get the government interested (through the Medicare fraud angle). He helped play detective and exposed dozens of doctors. Will their patients ever know? The FBI and HHS, who are investigating the cases, apparently are having offending doctors reimburse Medicare for their fraudulent billing. But the first doctor to pay up has been allowed to keep his medical license, promising never to repeat the offense. Rao finds that a frightening prospect: that physicians who – he believes – put their patients at risk for profit would simply be allowed to pay a fee, and not have to tell their patients that their health may have been compromised. That they will now be "trusted" to behave honestly in the future. It's something to think about if you or a family member has the misfortune of having to go through the trauma and heartache of chemotherapy in an oncologist's office.

The cancer is bad enough. But how do you know whether the drugs are really safe?

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.