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OTTAWA – The NDP is calling for an investigation into Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos’ alleged direct involvement in suspending reforms meant to lower the price of prescription medicines, which has plunged Canada’s drug pricing regulator into crisis.
NDP health critic Don Davies reacted after a report from online news media The Breach revealed that the minister had personally intervened in the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) to shelve reforms that would lower the price of medication for Canadians
Davies called this news “disturbing” and said it should be investigated immediately.
“The minister used his powers to kill reforms that would lower the price of medicine for patients. We know what happens when medicine prices are too high: many patients can’t fill their prescriptions, get sicker and sometimes die,” he said.
“For a Minister of Health to intervene in an independent regulator’s mandate is highly questionable; but to put the profits of industry over the welfare of Canadian patients is completely unacceptable.”
This comes as a new resignation was announced on Friday. Douglas Clark, executive director of the PMPRB, announced he would be leaving his post after almost a decade with the regulator but would remain with the board as a special adviser for the time being.
Earlier this week, PMPRB board member Matthew Herder, a professor of health law at Dalhousie University, also quit. And more than two months ago, Melanie Bourassa Forcier, the PMPRB’s acting chair, had also quit her position abruptly.
At the time, Bourassa Forcier said she could not comment because of legal reasons.
But Herder’s resignation letter to Duclos, made public on Thursday, confirmed some of the suspicions surrounding the difficulties of Canada’s drug price regulator.
In his letter, Herder spoke about an “absence of political courage” in reforming drug prices in a meaningful way and said the government had “fundamentally undermined the Board’s independence and credibility” in taking the industry’s side.
He said the PMPRB had sought to modernize its guidelines starting in 2016, but the new regulations have been consistently delayed because of a court challenge by the pharmaceutical industry and because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
He noted that the federal government decided not to appeal the decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal, which had ruled that new regulations from the PMPRB were unconstitutional, therefore limiting the regulator’s course of action to lower drug prices.
Herder also said the government has been consistently delaying, sometimes at the 11th hour, when the new regulations would “come into force,” and accepted the industry’s claim that it “needed more time to comply with the new regulations.”
Last November, Herder claims Duclos requested that the independent board suspend its consultations with stakeholders — which in his view undermined its credibility.
“It is difficult enough for a sector-specific regulator to do its job in the face of a hostile industry. But when government adds its voice to that of industry, all that lies before the regulator is an endless tunnel with no light,” wrote Herder.
Duclos’ office thanked Herder for his contribution to the board, but declined to comment on the reason for his resignation.
“As an independent quasi-judicial body, the Minister does not provide direction to the PMPRB and cannot comment on the reason for the resignation,” said the statement.
His office also noted that, according to the Patent Act, the PMPRB must consult with various parties, including the minister of health, before issuing any guidelines, and it is in that context that Duclos wrote to the chair of the board to “share his views” at the time.
The brouhaha around the drug regulation guidelines is happening at a time when industry and government sources are speculating that the Liberals might be timidly walking away from its promise to implement pharmacare, as per the deal with the NDP.
Earlier this month, National Post’s John Ivison revealed government members monitoring the NDP deal have warned the New Democrats that pharmacare is unlikely to happen in the next few months — meaning it might not figure in the upcoming budget.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed on the idea of a national pharmacare program during a town hall with students in Nova Scotia, but noted that not all provinces are on the same page.
“We’re trying to bring the country together and make sure that provinces are also stepping up,” said Trudeau. “But there’s huge things we can do around bulk buying that moves us in that direction and we’ll continue doing that work.”