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There are 50 biosimilars that have received approval from Health Canada, including Remicade, which is common to treat several autoimmune disorders.DNY59/stock

Medical industry advocates are urging the Ontario government to offer cheaper versions of certain prescription medications and save an estimated $147-million a year by enacting a policy more than 2½ years in the making.

These drugs, called biosimilars, are less-expensive versions of pricey biologic medicines already authorized for sale.

National association Biosimilars Canada reignited its call on Tuesday for the Ontario government to adopt a plan, known as a “switching policy,” that would require providers to dispense these cheaper drugs across the province. Association president Jim Keon said he expects the move would save the province $3-million a week amounting to $147-million a year, which could then be redirected to other health care priorities.

“Implementing a switching policy in Ontario is a responsible use of taxpayer dollars. It would contribute to a more sustainable drug plan and enable the government to fund other priorities while continuing to provide high-quality patient care,” Mr. Keon said at a press conference Tuesday.

Mr. Keon said this is the third time his organization has called on the government to act on this issue after thinking they were successful on two separate occasions. The Globe and Mail reported that Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet approved policy changes to implement biosimilars in January, 2020, but the plan was sidelined at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Talks again picked up in 2021 with the government going back to consult with companies and physicians, but Mr. Keon said work was paused ahead of the June provincial election. Now, Mr. Keon said the government has all the information it needs to make a decision, and he hopes a new policy is enacted as quickly as possible to save money and “prioritize scarce public dollars.”

Biologics, unlike chemical pills, are drugs manufactured in living organisms and are more expensive. Three of the top five prescription drugs in terms of public spending in Canada are biologics. Biosimilars, like generic drugs, are near-copies of biologics whose patents have expired.

There are 50 biosimilars that have received approval from Health Canada, including Remicade, which is common to treat several autoimmune disorders, including Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Carter Thorne, senior consultant in rheumatology at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ont., said Health Canada found these drugs have no meaningful clinical differences from the more expensive counterparts and will provide safe and effective treatment.

“The rising costs and use of biologic drugs are putting a major strain on the Ontario drug benefit program. Biosimilars are an important solution to this fiscal challenge that meets patient and taxpayer needs at the same time,” Dr. Thorne said.

Drug manufacturer Janssen Inc., a unit of Johnson & Johnson, has previously spoken out against the push to biosimilars, arguing treatment decisions should be left up to doctors rather than mandated by government policies. In early 2020, The Globe learned the drug company also made an offer to the Ontario government that included a steep discount in an effort to keep its business.

Other provinces have already made the switch to biosimilars, starting with British Columbia and Alberta in the West and more recently in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories. The Quebec government recently said the new program is expected to save the province $140-million in the first year, $40-million more than initially estimated.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health didn’t immediately respond to questions from The Globe.