By Marco Patrone
A public policy think tank criticizes Ontario’s record of drug approvals, arguing that ‘we should be increasing the drug budget rather than decreasing it.’
The growing backlog in the number of pharmaceuticals approved for funding in Ontario is a result of “cold-hearted” government cost control, a think tank has charged.
The Cameron Institute says the government “absolutely” is slowing down the listing of pharmaceuticals that could be helping the sick stay out of hospital and get back to work sooner.
“There are just so many new innovative, effective products coming out on the market and provincial drug plans are just not listing them as quickly as they are coming out so yes, there’s a growing backlog,” said Dr. Wayne Taylor, executive director of the public policy think tank and a former McMaster University professor of health care management.
“It’s simply cold-hearted cost-containment,” Taylor added.
The rising cost of prescription drugs is a key worry for provincial health plans as they grapple with a budget squeeze on health care caused by an aging population and increased use of medications in medical treatments. Many provinces – led by Ontario and Alberta – have sought to negotiate lower prices for popular drugs with drug makers in recent years, an effort that has saved hundreds of millions of dollars in lower medicare costs.
Ontario, which spends more than $51 billion a year on health care, is seeking to curb spending to 2 per cent a year and redirect health services from expensive hospitals to home care and the community as it tries to balance its budget by 2017-2018.
The Liberal government has come under fire in the legislature for its health care cuts, most recently from the Tory opposition which decries its drug listing policies and wants more drugs paid for by the public purse.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins was taken aback by suggestions there has been a slowdown in the number of pharmaceuticals approved for funding. “Outside the rare diseases, there hasn’t been a single individual who has told me they’re concerned about a backlog.”
Hoskins said he’s met with industry officials and all decisions on what’s approved are made based on scientific evidence. He said there must be demonstrated proof a product is effective before it’s given the green light.
“Now we have a pan-Canadian process in which dozens of brand names as well as on the generic side have already passed through that process,” he said, adding that he estimates there have been 50 approvals over a “relatively short period of time.”
His appraisal of the situation is in stark contrast with those of some industry insiders who complain privately that only a handful were approved in September while many others languish in “active negotiations.” The industry has yet to raise any red flags publicly but pharmaceutical companies have ramped up efforts to lobby the government to ease what is considered a worrisome bottleneck involving drugs.
Ontario’s PCs say the Liberal government is deliberately slowing drug approvals to a trickle because the province can no longer afford to pay for new medications. Tory health critic Jeff Yurek said the government’s “terrible” fiscal state has left it scrambling to cut health care spending wherever it can, including by holding up drug approvals.
“We know the province has run out of money and they’re quite strained and if some form of bureaucracy is slowing down the process for people getting access to medications, we’re seeing it go beyond the rare diseases and that’s a concern,” he said.
Ontario’s annual health care spending is over $51 billion and accounts for around 40 per cent of the total budget. Drug costs eat up a quarter of the total health budget.
Dr. Taylor said slowing the listing of effective mediations is counterproductive on an economic level, too.
“At a time when more and more patients are being treated with medicine rather than surgery or other more invasive therapies, we should be increasing the drug budget rather than decreasing it, and remember the Ontario drug plan is for seniors and those of low income. So those who are the most vulnerable are being hit the hardest,” he said.
The Conservatives said Ontario is at risk of losing out on research and development funding, future job growth and other investments.
“Ontario is already not that competitive with regards to bringing industry into the marketplace and we should be trying to ensure the businesses that are here, investments that are being made, stay in Ontario,” Yurek said. Any loss of investment in the health sciences sector would run counter to Ontario’s stated goal of attracting more multinationals to the province, he added.