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British Columbia NDP leader Adrian Dix, pictured at a Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon on Sept. 18, 2012. Dix wants B.C. doctors to favour prescribing low-cost generic brands of prescription drugs over costly name brands.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix wants to expand a controversial program from the 1990s as he prepares his election platform for 2013.

He said an NDP government would add more classes of drugs to a system that encourages doctors to prescribe lower-cost generic medications instead of the latest brand-name pharmaceuticals.

On Thursday, Canada's health ministers gather in Halifax, where they will tackle generic drug pricing, hoping to pool their buying power to negotiate better deals. The rising cost of prescription drugs is putting huge pressure on Canada's health-care system, but experts say the provinces could save more by challenging the way brand-name drugs are prescribed.

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"Just paying for what works makes sense," Mr. Dix said in an interview.

The NDP government of the day introduced the pricing program in the 1990s for several classes of prescription drugs. It sets what the province's PharmaCare plan will pay at the level of the lowest-priced option. The B.C. Liberals had vowed to scrap the program, but instead kept it going.

Mr. Dix said an NDP government would also invest more in providing doctors with independent research on prescription drugs so they do not have to rely on drug companies.

"We can do better in terms of the health of patients and also reduce costs," he said. "We have to support providing as much independent information to doctors as we can to ensure advertising doesn't dominate the prescription of drugs."

Alan Cassels, a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria, said governments across Canada need to look at investing in more independent research.

"You do it because the payback is huge," he said. "The biggest part of the [health spending] problem is the overuse of newer and expensive treatments."

He pointed to a class of popular cholesterol-lowering drugs as an example: When generic versions of the fast-selling Lipitor became available last year, doctors by and large didn't switch to prescribing the 12 lower-cost options. Instead, a new brand-name drug, Crestor, surged in sales.

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"This to me really showed the power of drug marketing. There is no research that shows Crestor is any better or more effective," Mr. Cassels said.

Michael Law, at the UBC Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, said the health ministers are moving in the right direction, but the provinces need to do more than fight for better generic drug prices.

He noted that in the United States, generic drug sales have 80 per cent of the market. In Canada, generics make up only 60 per cent of sales. "There is a lot of room for improvement on that front."

B.C. Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid agreed. "Every dollar we don't spend on pharmaceuticals is a dollar you can spend on direct patient care."

As a rookie Minister of Health, she has been saddled with a controversy over allegations of improper conduct involving government employees and drug researchers. So expanding independent drug research isn't at the top of her agenda. However, she said: "I'm highly motivated to make sure we are getting the best possible value out of every dollar."

Shelley Ross, president of the B.C. Medical Association, said doctors would welcome the chance to work with the province on getting better information about prescription drugs. But she said representatives of the drug companies have a role in informing doctors about developments. "We have to remember their job is to sell," she said, "but it's not all bad."

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