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Ontario slams Ottawa over prescription drug shortage

People shop at the Zellars Pharmacy at Square One Mall, in Square One Mall, Friday, November 11, 2011.

Brett Gundlock For The Globe and Mail/brett gundlock The Globe and Mail

Canada's most populous province is scrambling to deal with a shortage of various prescription drugs because Ottawa didn't give enough warning about a slowdown in production, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said Thursday.

Ontario only found out about the problem on Feb. 28, although the company that's responsible for the shortfall due to production issues knew long before that, she said.

"We did not get the advance notice that we should have received," Ms. Matthews said. "It is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure that we're aware of slowdowns in production in time to actually prepare a response to that."

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Provinces have no way of knowing when a medication will be unavailable because Ottawa doesn't require pharmaceutical companies to publicly report gaps in supply, she said.

Some Canadian companies voluntarily report shortages of certain drugs, but a growing number of doctors and health organizations say it should be mandatory.

"It is still a voluntary notice, so that just isn't good enough," Ms. Matthews said.

It's an issue provincial and territorial health ministers will discuss Thursday afternoon in a conference call on the drug shortage, she said.

She's also written to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to insist that the provinces get as much lead time as they can to deal with any shortfalls.

Ms. Matthews said she's concerned the current shortfall, caused by production problems at a pharmaceutical facility operated by Sandoz Canada in Quebec, may require the province to delay some medical procedures.

However, Ontario's hospitals are already working together to share drugs, she said.

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"At this point, we have enough supply," she added. "But we do anticipate in the future that we're going to have problems, so we're working very hard to manage that now."

Ms. Matthews said she doesn't know when the province may run out of certain drugs because the government is still trying to determine its inventory.

Earlier this week, Health Canada said the federal government will speed up the approval of offshore medications as long as they meet regulatory standards for quality and effectiveness.

Experts say there are any number of reasons driving the periodic shortage of some medications, from an inability to access raw ingredients to the growing global demand for drugs.

But there is widespread speculation that some manufacturers may be choosing to reduce or even discontinue production of less profitable generic drugs in order to boost sales of newer, more expensive brand-name drugs.

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