Canada must protect its drug supply

Canada’s drug supply is meant to provide for 37 million Canadians, not 370 million Americans. U.S. cross-border shopping could endanger Canadians

Discussions about the United States importing cheap drugs from Canada have been around for awhile. In January, Sanders tabled a health-care reform bill that’s languishing in the Senate and will likely never be passed.

In Canada, pharmacists and other groups have warned Ottawa for months about the dangers of allowing the U.S. to dip its hand into our drug supply. Diabetics in Canada have already had to deal with insulin shortages and now three significant cancer drugs are in short supply.

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Patient advocacy groups, pharmacist associations, physicians (oncologists, in particular) and organizations representing the pharmaceutical industry have all called on the federal government to do what’s necessary to protect our somewhat fragile drug supply.

The U.S. says a pilot program could be underway soon and given its potential for disrupting Canadians’ access to their own drug supply, it seems it would be prudent for the federal government to take proactive steps.

Yet Ottawa seems to be taking a very laissez-faire approach to these developments, considering only reactive measures. Health Canada admits it was not consulted by the U.S. prior to its announcement.

Despite the warnings and calls for action, including a demand to Parliament to deal with this, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor says they will be working closely with experts to “ensure there are no adverse effects” on Canada.

The primary concern is shortages. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has responded by stating he believes that Health Canada ensures “a steady and solid supply” of medications for Canadians – regardless of internal or external pressure.

But that statement is more spin than reality. University of Waterloo pharmacy professor Kelly Grindrod says we are already in “one of the worst drug shortages in modern history.” Of the 7,000 prescription drugs available in Canada, more than 1,800 are in short supply.

Canada has a website designated to track drug shortages and, according to Grindrod, anecdotal evidence from pharmacists suggests as many as one-half of the drugs they order are unavailable. Additionally, a Canadian Pharmacists Association survey found dealing with drug shortages can consume as much as 20 per cent of a pharmacist’s typical shift.

The problem is complex and involves a lot of stakeholders. But this is a time when the Canadian market can’t protect itself and is in dire need of political leadership, government action and a long-term solution.

Susan Martinuk is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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