Opposition parties are calling on vaccine maker Pfizer and federal ministers to appear before the House of Commons health committee to explain a decision by Ottawa to delay the coming into force of drug-pricing regulations by half a year.
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner and NDP health critic Don Davies agreed Friday that MPs deserve an explanation. The committee is currently studying proposed changes to the Patented Medicines Prices Review Board (PMPRB) that were set to come into force in December.
The new rules seek to lower the price of drugs by allowing the regulator, the PMPRB, to adjust which countries it uses to set a benchmark on prices and to take into account the drug’s cost-effectiveness for patients. Under the new rules, the PMPRB would compare Canadian list prices to those in Australia, Belgium, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Britain, Sweden, France and Italy.
In a move welcomed by industry, Health Canada informed stakeholders last month that it would press pause on changes until July 1, 2021, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a challenge for pharmaceutical companies. It also said a longer runway would give them more time to adapt.
Mr. Davies said the decision to delay the regulations coming into force was “grossly disappointing” and a “colossal failure” of public policy.
“It is not just a six-month delay,” he said, noting the Liberal government has previously postponed the implementation of the reforms.
The changes are one way to ensure that Canada pays drug prices comparable with what other countries pay, he added.
“Health Canada itself estimates that these reforms will save Canada $13-billion over 10 years,” Mr. Davies said. “These reforms have been studied extensively.”
The industry is opposed to the changes, Mr. Davies added, as he questioned whether vaccine availability was used as a bargaining chip in forcing the government to announce the delay. Pfizer is one of two companies currently approved for COVID-19 vaccines in Canada.
Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC), a lobby group that represents drug makers, told The Globe and Mail last month that if “the amended regulations come into force there is no question that companies will be required to evaluate their impact on all new medicines and vaccines, which could in turn lead to more drugs not launching, or delaying their launch in Canada.”
It also said it put forward a counterproposal to the government in October that would lower prices and commit $1-billion to domestic drug manufacturing and rare-disease research, as long as the new regulations do not go through.
A copy of the proposal argues the impact of the new rules on COVID-19 vaccines is “unpredictable” and says a “collaborative path forward” would be for the regulations to be delayed until after the pandemic is over.
Christina Antoniou, the director of corporate affairs for Pfizer Canada, a member of IMC, said in a statement the reality is that if the government applied its new pricing guidelines to COVID-19 vaccine candidates that its “ability to move at the speed of science would have been restricted.”
Ms. Rempel Garner said given the company’s statement that it behooves Pfizer and Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Procurement Minister Anita Anand to answer questions before the House of Commons health committee.
“We shouldn’t be making policy when we are over a barrel,” Ms. Rempel Garner said.
Ms. Antoniou said Friday that Pfizer would be pleased to collaborate with the committee.
When questioned about the delay on Friday, Ms. Hajdu said that “in the spirit of fairness” the federal government is working collaboratively with the industry to make sure they understand the intent to move ahead with the regulatory changes and making sure Canadians have affordable medication.
“We understand that during a pandemic, it is very difficult for consultations to continue, for changes to be made and of course for pharmaceutical companies that are right now very focused on research, development and the provision of essential medicines and vaccines,” she said, noting continued work to lower drug costs.
When asked Friday whether the issue came up in discussions with drug makers, both Ms. Hajdu and Ms. Anand said no.
“I’ve had no conversations relating to the implementation of the regulation that you refer to at all,” Ms. Anand said.
Former health minister Jane Philpott, who advocated for changes to drug-price regulations five years ago, said she is disappointed the federal government announced the six-month delay.
In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Philpott said it does not benefit anyone to hold up the regulatory changes for half a year and the benefits “far outweigh” potential challenges that have been raised.
“It is long past due,” she said. “It is a six-month delay in a process that is a very long process. One could argue, what does six months matter? But when you are looking at the cost of drugs and the fact we are adding to the cost … this is not changing the cost to Canadians by thousands of dollars but by millions of dollars.”
Ms. Philpott, the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s University, said the reforms are the result of significant government effort to make health care more affordable.
“It is in everybody’s best interest that it go forward.”
With a report from Marieke Walsh
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