OTTAWA — The Trudeau Liberals are being accused of caving in to pressure from the high-powered pharmaceutical industry in Washington at the expense of Canadian patients suffering debilitating medical conditions and those struggling to foot the cost of their pricey medications.
The proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement extends a so-called "market exclusivity" period for high-class biologic drugs to 10 years from eight — a move that applies to medicines increasingly used as a lifeline for patients with chronic conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and cancer.
The measure means generic producers would have to wait an additional two years to produce similar drugs at lower costs to consumers, as they won't have access to crucial data needed to do so.
Members of the medical world and opposition MPs are calling on the government to do everything it can to soften the impacts of the decision, fearing it will have sweeping ripple effects.
Allowing drug companies to keep valuable data to themselves for an extra two years is a step away from an affordable national pharmacare plan, said Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association president Jim Keon, who sees the move as a direct reaction to pressure from the U.S.
"This measure was put into this agreement at the demand of the United States government, at the demand of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States, at the demand of the pharmaceutical lobby in Washington," he said.
"This is a step in the wrong direction."
In June, the Liberal government unveiled a six-member advisory council to consult Canadians and inform plans for a national pharmacare program.
Extending the length of time a drug-maker can shield information is a mistake that will mean higher drug costs for provinces, territories, employers and employees who cost-share drug plans, added NDP health critic Don Davies.
"The bottom line is when Canadians are already paying among the highest prices for drugs in the world and we already know that one in four Canadians is skipping medication due to cost, why would the Liberals agree in a trade agreement to a measure that is going to make drug costs more expensive?" he said. "That's what they have done."
Conservative health critic Marilyn Gladu said drug companies must be able to recoup research dollars they put into producing medications.
Even so, she's not sure the government struck "the right balance."
"Certainly it will result in higher costs even by delaying generics for a couple years," she said.
"The question is, 'Is it merited in order to keep getting these new biologic-type medicines that are so badly needed?'"
However, both Keon and Davies point to figures from the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board indicating that the amount spent by pharmaceutical companies in Canada on research and development, relative to sales, has been falling since the late 1990s.
The Liberal government erred by not leveraging the decision in the new trade deal around biologics into more research funds, Davies added. "It is a lose, lose for Canadians."
A spokesperson for Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Thursday the government is working to bring drug costs down by working with provinces and territories to negotiate lower prices.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said this week it is a crucial issue for the government.
"We also look forward to attracting further medical research to Canada," she said Tuesday. "Our government will also stand up for our public health care system."
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press