British Columbia drug safety initiative wins support in campaign to have funding restored

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It's a big deal to get a mention in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). But an axed BC independent drug watchdog, the Therapeutics Initiative, got an entire article written about it today.  The Therapeutics Initiative had its funding cut by the BC Liberals in April, 2012, forcing UBC to step in with stop-gap funding that is at risk of not being continued.  The TI also lost access to patient data which it requires to carry out its work.  The province's move to end support for the internationally-known research group has been an ongoing controversy.  Given the TI’s excellent track record in terms of saving both lives and money, the question has been: why would the province cut the program?

This week more groups asked the government to put the program back in place.

Barbara Kermode-Scott,  reports in BMJ today that:

In an open letter released on 2 October, Canadian Doctors for Medicare and other signatories from around the world (including representatives of the Public Health Association of British Columbia, the Canadian Health Coalition, PharmaWatch Canada, Canadian Women’s Health Network, Health Action International, and the International Society of Independent Drug Bulletins) called on British Columbia’s premier and provincial government to restore funding to the Therapeutics Initiative, Mermode-Scott reports.

Read story here.

The Vancouver Observer reported on the story last June.  Paul Webster wrote then that the BC government had gutted the province’s ability to hold drug companies accountable if they sell risky, overpriced pills, and said that the "questions are piling up" about why this had happened.

Established by UBC's Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Department of Family Practice, and the New Democratic Party government’s ministry of health in British Columbia, it  provided physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and policy makers with current, evidence based information and recommendations about the effectiveness and safety of new prescription drugs for the last 20 years.

Mermode-Scott says, "Over the years it has gained much respect in the global academic community for its work. For instance, in 2002, the group examined the scientific evidence for rofecoxib (Vioxx), and concluded that the risk of heart attacks and other harmful effects outweighed any benefits associated with this medication. Two years later, the drug was pulled from markets around the world."

This is a big issue for British Columbia. Webster's story said last June that 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. Webster noted that 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," he wrote.

"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."  He said that these experts had 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.”

Last May, a Vancouver Sun editorial said it was time for the Liberals "to step up, reverse their decision, and pledge their continued support for a group that has more than proved its worth to every British Columbian."

The British Medial Journal noted today that funding for the initiative was cut in 2008, after a report to the then Liberal Party minister of health called for its “replacement.”

The report came from a task force of nine people, some of whom had links to the pharmaceutical industry, including one who was among the industry’s chief lobbyists in Canada.

 Vanessa Brcic, a board member of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, told the British Medical Journal that: “The Therapeutics Initiative is critical to ensuring that BC [British Columbia] patients are getting the safest, most effective medicines available, and it’s an excellent model for the rest of Canada.”

In an email interview with Mermode-Scott, Brcic added, “The international support for the Therapeutics Initiative speaks to the global movement towards evidence-based, cost-saving health policy that is in the best interest of governments, patients, and health providers alike. The Initiative does as much to prevent harm from inappropriate prescription as it does to support confident prescription of the right medicines for the right patients.”



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