Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos was warned that pharmaceutical companies had steadfastly refused to engage on drug-price reforms before he urged an independent federal agency to pause those reforms in favour of more consultation, a 2021 memo shows.
The memo, obtained by the NDP through the access-to-information law and shared with The Canadian Press, is a status report from the acting chair of the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board to the health minister about obstacles they were facing to lowering the price of drugs.
The review board is an arm’s-length federal agency tasked with regulating the cost of patented drugs in Canada to ensure they aren’t excessive, which includes looking at the price of similar medications in other countries.
In 2017, the government announced new rules to bring prices down by expanding the number of countries Canada compares with. Those changes were supposed to be introduced in 2020 but were delayed multiple times because of the COVID-19 pandemic before eventually coming into effect last July.
The agency was in the process of consulting on the finer details associated with the new rule in November when Duclos wrote to the acting chair and suggested the process be paused to give drug companies, patient groups, provincial ministers and himself more time to understand the changes.
The 2021 memo suggests the health minister knew pharmaceutical companies had been obstinate in the face of the changes, at least from the perspective of the agency.
“After five years, myriad policy proposals and many hundreds of hours of consultation, it would appear the pharmaceutical industry is simply not amenable to any measures that would further constrain its ability to sell patented medicines in Canada at free market prices,” the acting chair of the agency’s board at the time, Melanie Bourassa Forcier, wrote in the memo.
She said after 110 hours of meeting with members of the pharmaceutical industry to talk about the guidelines for the new rules, they “steadfastly refused to engage on the substance.”
The minister’s letter to the drug pricing regulator led to discord among board members and was quickly followed by the resignation of the acting chair, a board member and the agency’s executive director.
The review board ultimately decided to pause the changes.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and health critic Don Davies are expected to hold a press conference about the memo Thursday morning.
They allege the memo, along with increased lobbying efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to the federal health minister’s office, helps to explain why Duclos urged the agency to halt the changes.
Davies has accused the minister of caving to pressure from the industry.
Duclos did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but told the House of Commons health committee in April that he asked the agency to pause to make sure provinces, territories, drug companies and patient groups had more time to understand the changes.
The letter was part of the minister’s legal obligation to provide feedback on the proposed changes, he said.
He also said that he met with members of the pharmaceutical industry on a range of topics, including drug prices, COVID-19, the shortage of children’s medicine and other concerns.