Examining Canada's pharmaceutical crisis
// Liam Loxton

There’s a drug shortage in Canada. No, don’t go stock up on Tylenol and medical marijuana; it’s not that kind of drug shortage – but it is one that will affect our public health care system. A pharmaceutical factory owned by Sandoz Canada and located in Boucherville, Quebec is behind the recent shortages.

Sandoz Canada has informed the public that they will be upgrading their factories as highly recommended by the FDA who, after inspection, deemed the quality of their products unsatisfactory. In light of these changes Sandoz Canada is cancelling production of some drugs while decreasing production of others. These upgrades, and the subsequent slowdowns of production, are projected to last about a year. This is problematic because Sandoz Canada produces 60 per cent of the Canada’s medical morphine, 90 per cent of all injectable drugs, and more than 100 different narcotic painkillers and sedatives commonly used in departments such as prenatal care, palliative and home care, cancer, mental health, surgery, hormone therapy, and EMS – when their factory slows down, the whole country is left with a giant gap in supply. To exacerbate the problem, the Quebecois plant experienced a fire in early 2012, causing parts of the plant to shut down.

Thankfully the shortage hasn’t yet affected the public health care sector, but a continued shortage will mean delays to scheduled surgeries, and inadequate supplies for the treatment of patients under psychiatric care. As a reactionary measure, the Conservative party, with the support of the NDP, have passed legislation to hasten the approval of substitute drugs. This means that Canada will purchase drug equivalents from other countries or more expensive name-brand products in place of generic.

The reaction by the federal government seems to be well-received by political critics, but the public ought to know who stands to gain from this legislature. When the government begins to explore possible imports and alternative drugs, Sandoz’s parent company, Novartis, will be on the list, meaning that the exact same drugs Sandoz Canada produces could be provided at higher cost by the same corporation. It seems unjust that Canada has to use more tax dollars to cover for their own inadequate facilities.

Regardless of who steps in, the price increase is a painful blow for Canada’s public health care system, which is already struggling with inadequate capacity demands and an expanding private health care system looking to pick up the slack.

B.C.’s public health care is especially vulnerable to increased costs impeding the level of funding needed to meet the people’s needs, because the provincial government is about to renegotiate public health care worker’s contracts. For example, the agreement with the union representing B.C. nurses expires on Mar. 31, and while they have agreed to a zero wage increase, it is demanding the province hire more than 2,000 nurses to remedy what it calls a “dangerous” staff shortage.

This seems a very fair demand that will certainly address the increasing demand on the public sector, but if the negotiations with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation are any indication, there just isn’t any money to spare. The decreased tax dollars resulting from the recession and massive tax breaks given by the B.C. Liberals to corporations a few years ago aren’t helping matters, either.

With funding problems reoccurring all over Canada, it’s disheartening that the federal government hasn’t been more proactive in preventing problems like this from happening. I would suggest the federal government take this shortage as a cue to also impose stronger legislature and quality control on essential drug manufacturing in order to ensure higher quality production and sustainability in order to prevent situations of crippling slowdown.

There is little wiggle room in the public health care sector’s budget, and an increasing capacity demand is making it even more constricting. If the federal government is serious about a sustainable public sector, more has to be done to prevent private companies from creating situations that will unnecessarily increase costs.

//Liam Loxton, writer
//Graphics by Miles Chic

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