If you want an edifying look at how the drug business in this country works, you’d do well to read the article in today’s New York Times (registration req’d) about the shortage of Prilosec OTC, the heartburn medication made by Astra Zeneca.

Seems that the popular heartburn medication, the sole over the counter offering for this ailment, is in short supply. And so sufferers are turning to Nexium, another Astra Zeneca drug, which is prescription only. Nexium costs about $4 a pill. Prilosec OTC costs 70 cents a pill. Lo and behold, wouldn’t you know it, they’re the same drug! “Over-the-counter Prilosec works as well. It’s an utter travesty for the American consumer,” says Michael Krensavage, a drug industry analyst at Raymond James. Well, how about that. as Mel Allen used to say.

The story only gets more deliriously maddening as you follow the twists and turns of who’s to blame for the Prilosec shortage, how Merck fits into this, the boondoggle that’s let Astra Zeneca have a monopoly on the over-the-counter heartburn market after its patent expired, the cost to our health care system, and more. It’s enough to give you heartburn.