Friday, February 18, 2005

Canada's Internet Pharmacies in Jeopardy

The future of Canada’s Internet pharmacy industry is still unclear, with senior ministers talking about the pros and cons of restricting the industry and potentially killing off jobs. Half of the billion dollar industry is situated in Manitoba, employing approximately 2500 people, many in high-paying jobs. Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh has suggested he will come to a decision soon about cracking down.

The Health Minister is concerned about the way prescriptions are signed off by Canadian doctors, without them actually seeing the American patients. He considers co-signing prescriptions to be unethical.

After speaking with Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, Manitoba’s senior MP and the Treasury Board Minister, Reg Alcock, has suggested that Internet pharmacy sales to Americans may put into jeopardy the low-price regime – Canada’s tradition of controlling drug prices - enjoyed by all Canadians. Dosanjh believes that the low Canadian pricing system is under threat from a US bill before Congress that would allow Americans to buy prescriptions from Internet pharmacies from Canada and no other foreign countries. If the bill went through, Dosanjh is worried that Canada’s pharmacies would be overwhelmed with orders and our pricing system may get scrapped since it was never designed for exports. The Patented Medicine Prices Review Board regulates drug prices to ensure they don’t rise faster than inflation. Without price protection, Canadians will end up paying hundreds of millions dollars more.

Premier Doer doesn’t see the connection and believes that Canada risks losing the industry to other countries. Minister Alcock has also suggested that a possible solution that makes political, economic and medical sense can be found.

In the meantime, pharmaceutical giant Merck Frosst recently announced that it would stop selling drugs to Canadian Internet pharmacies, the seventh manufacturer to do so. They took action about a year after other suppliers and have done so after repeatedly warning pharmacies to respect sales agreements that call forbid the exportation of drugs.

Minister Dosanjh said he's considering three options for restricting Internet sales:

*amending the Food and Drugs Act to forbid doctors from co-signing prescriptions
*preventing doctors from prescribing drugs for foreigners
*placing certain drugs on a protected list.

"Under the circumstances we may need all three (or the proposed options,'' he said. "I am very, very concerned as the Minister of Health.''

Clearly, the first two items on the list would kill off an industry that quickly grew without government funding. Such a sacrifice may be worth it, though, it the alternative is considerably higher priced prescription drugs for all Canadians.

Maybe a compromise can be found.

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