Thursday, November 20, 2014 · 3:38 p.m.
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Sen. Lamar Alexander. (Photo: Staff)

Following a Senate hearing on the recent outbreak of fungal meningitis Thursday, Sen. Lamar Alexander praised the Tennessee Department of Public Health and called the Massachusetts State Board of Pharmacy "completely incompetent."

"This has been a nightmare for Tennesseans, as it has been for any Americans affected," Alexander said. "We've had 13 Tennesseans who have died, 81 Tennesseans are sick, a thousand more exposed. And all of us are shaken because we live in a country where we have this miracle that we walk into one of our 60,000 drugstores or pharmacies or we go to our doctor or a pain clinic and we get medicine—we don't think about it, we just assume it's safe."

Contaminated steroid injections packaged and distributed by a Massachusetts compounding center infected at least 461 persons with fungal meningitis nationwide, killing 32. Tennessee has reported more meningitis-related deaths than any other state.

During a conference call with reporters, Alexander said the quick actions of officials in the Tennessee Department of Health ultimately saved lives. The senator described the response as being "A-plus."

"Because they acted so rapidly, in just nine days they saved five or six lives and kept another 30 or so Tennesseans from becoming ill," he said. 

Alexander, who said he expected to be the ranking Republican member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee next year, added that he will draft and introduce legislation immediately upon the convening of the next Congress. 

"I'd like to make it the first order of business," he said.

A bill from Alexander will likely address the issue of shared responsibility for authorizing compounding facilities that is held between states and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The senator said he would prefer to have one entity overseeing the supervision of the nation's compounding pharmacies.

"Let's put either state boards of pharmacy or the FDA on the flagpole, and let the other get out of it," he said.

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