NAFTA negotiations may increase costs of pharmacare

Poll after poll has shown that Canadians consistently support the creation of a national pharmacare plan. In a recent Angus Reid poll, 91 per cent of Canadians say they want pharmacare so they don’t have to choose between buying groceries, or paying for prescription drugs.

The survey also found that prescription drug access and affordability are issues for almost one-quarter of Canadian households.

Signs are that negotiations for a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) could make these costs go even higher. According to Dr. Joel Lexchin, an emergency room physician and professor of health policy and family medicine, the cost of a pharmacare plan could go up, “possibly dramatically.”

In an article on the website The Conversation, Dr. Lexchin explains that this has to do with intellectual property rights (IPRs). “Usually when talk turns to IPRs people think about patents. But there’s also something called data protection,” he explained. “The data that’s being protected is information about the effectiveness and safety of drugs that comes out of the clinical trials that brand-name drug companies do when they want approval to market a new drug.”

Dr. Lexchin goes on to explain, “The data is the private property of the brand-name companies and can’t be used by anyone else, including generic companies, for a period of time.

“It would be very costly for generic companies to do the original testing all over again, and it would also be unethical because the results of the trials are already known so generic companies use the data once it’s no longer protected.”

The result longer data protection time means it takes longer for generic medications to reach patients – this is a problem when generics are needed to keep drug plans affordable.

Canada used to provide five years of data protection. Big Pharma lobby groups in Canada and in the U.S. drove that number up to eight years.

According to sources, in the United States-Mexico NAFTA talks, there was an agreement that biologics will have 10 years of data exclusivity.

“Biologics are injectable drugs that are used to treat various forms of arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (inflammatory bowel conditions), multiple sclerosis and a variety of other diseases.”

They can be very effective, but also very costly.

According to Dr. Lexchin, “if the U.S. pushes Canada to accept the same data protection period that Mexico did, then data protection here goes up by another 1.5 to two years.”

“If we want a national pharmacare system, then we need to make sure that our negotiators don’t give in to any American demands about medical data protection,” he said.