Playing for the Pharma team: Christy Clark switches jerseys on drug safety

Independent drug oversight finds itself unwelcome in British Columbia.

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Christy Clark on CKNW: Rationalising her stance on Therapeutics Initiative

As word circulates the BC government is gutting the province’s ability to hold drug companies accountable if they sell risky, overpriced pills, questions are piling up.

There are lots of bottom-line reasons for people to care. BC taxpayers spend more than a billion dollars a year on pills purchased by PharmaCare Plan, and the average citizen spends a further $575 out of pocket on them. That means BC’s drug industry – the legal one, that is -- is similar in scale to the forestry industry. And unlike our forests, the number of pills popped in the province is growing about 10 per cent every year. BC government spending on PharmaCare -- which pays for drugs for seniors and people with disabilities -- has increased roughly 30 percent since 2005.

So controlling drug costs is clearly crucial -- both to the government and the public at large.

Given all this, it this seems strange that over the past year the government has spent well over a million dollars on a legal campaign to investigate and fire its very own team of experts on probing how best to ensure drugs are both safe and affordable.

These were the people – researchers skilled in using data to probe drug safety and effectiveness -- who stood up for taxpayers, the elderly and the ill in the face of pressure from the famously aggressive, powerful international companies presiding over the trillion-dollar global pharma industry. Just weeks ago, these experts released a study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry revealing an “exponential rise” in antipsychotic drug prescriptions for youths issued by BC psychiatrists, family physicians and pediatricians for conditions these drugs are not intended to treat. “This is of great concern” the study warned, given “serious metabolic side effects that may predispose these youth to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood.”

Picking which drugs to include within the provincial drug plan, and how much to pay their manufacturers, is a tough task for officials facing competing pressures from pharmaceutical companies, physicians, patients, and numerous public watchdog groups. Their ability to do it stems in good part from the 1996 creation of the PharmaNet database, which researchers use to help guide government healthcare policies, British Columbia has one of the most thorough (and under-appreciated) drug safety systems in the world.

The biggest endorsement of the PharmaNet data resides in the fact B.C. has the lowest per capita drug costs in Canada. Based on data from the Canadian Institute of Health Information, B.C. has succeeded in reducing spending on pharmaceuticals by as much as $500 million a year since 2008. A good deal of this massive restraint on payments to pharmaceutical companies has been guided by the revelations scientists tease from PharmaNet.

Private data: handle with care

Lately, though, there’s been a lot less of that sort of teasing going on: Almost exactly a year ago, the Liberals fired much of the government’s drug research brain trust.

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