Starting today, over 20,000 B.C. patients with cancer or chronic diseases like arthritis, colitis and diabetes will have six months to transition to drugs that are similar to those they’re taking as the province becomes the first in Canada to stop covering some expensive, formerly patented drugs.
Health Minister Adrian Dix promised that no harm will come from the change that will initially save the government more than $96 million in its prescription drug program (PharmaCare).
The savings will be plowed back into the drug budget to allow for funding of drugs that have not yet been covered such as Jardiance, a medicine known as an SGLT2 inhibitor for diabetes. Another drug for psoriatic arthritis called Taltz will also be immediately available.
Since some of the soon to be phased-out government-funded drugs like Remicade have to be given at infusion clinics, Dix said there may be some inconveniences as patients find new locations. But patients will work with their doctors to make the switch to “biosimilar” drugs, which are the just-as-safe and effective copycat versions of brand name bioengineered drugs called biologics.
Biosimilars are manufactured after the 20-year patent period expires on biologics. They cost anywhere from 25 to 50 per cent less than the original biologic drugs which are said to be the single biggest expense for public drug plans like PharmaCare.
European countries have led the way in transitioning patients to biosimilar drugs, but Canada has lagged far behind.
In 2018, B.C. spent $125 million on Lantus, Enbrel and Remicade, three biologic drugs that treat chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
“Biosimilars (like infliximab) are a necessary step to ensure PharmaCare provides existing coverage for more people and funds new drugs well into the future,” Dix said.
PharmaCare coverage for certain biologics will end Nov. 25. After that time, PharmaCare will provide coverage for the original drugs only in exceptional cases and they will be decided upon on a case-by-case basis.
B.C. has spent the last nine years studying the matter before making the decision. It consulted with physician and patient groups like the B.C. Society of Rheumatologists, endocrinologists, Doctors of B.C., Arthritis Consumer Experts, Canadian Arthritis Society, B.C. Pharmacy Association, Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association, regional health authorities, Health Canada, and the Patented Prices Medicine Review Board.
About 2,700 Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis patients will also be affected by the transitioning policy, but information for gastroenterology patients will be available in a month or two.
Rheumatologist Dr. John Esdaile said B.C. becomes an overnight Canadian leader with the cost-saving policy change.
“It’s a great day for B.C., for patients, for PharmaCare and for health care in general,” he said, noting that many European countries have had such a policy for 10 years with no evidence of detriment to patients. “I don’t know of any bad news,” said Esdaile, scientific director of Arthritis Research Canada, which has been “badgering” the province to enact such a change.
“For years, B.C has been spending money it doesn’t need to spend on expensive biologics instead of using biosimilars which I call biogenerics since they work just as well,” Esdaile said.
Cheryl Koehn, president of Arthritis Consumer Experts, said society will benefit from the new policy because coverage for other conditions and drugs will expand.
MORE TO COME.