The federal minister in charge of promoting competition says he’s concerned about a deal between Manulife Financial Corp. and Loblaw Cos. Ltd. that restricts patients from filling prescriptions for specialty drugs at other pharmacies under their insurance plans.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Wednesday the government is reviewing the arrangement, which affects around 260 medications meant to treat complex, chronic or life-threatening conditions. Details were shared with plan holders earlier this month.

Read: Manulife, Loblaw deal to deliver specialty drugs sparks access, competition concerns

Manulife said starting Jan. 22, the insurance company’s Specialty Drug Care program would transition to being carried out “primarily” through Shoppers Drug Mart and other Loblaw-owned pharmacies. It had previously also covered specialty drugs through national home and community health-care provider Bayshore HealthCare. The affected specialty drugs treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis, pulmonary arterial hypertension, cancer, osteoporosis and hepatitis C.

“They don’t get the message,” Champagne told reporters. “We want more competition in this country. We want more options. We want more choices, so that’s not going in the direction we want to see.”

Champagne said he hopes the companies will “get the message that we should always strive for Canadians to have choices.”

A day earlier, New Democratic Party MPs Don Davies and Brian Masse penned a letter to Competition Commissioner Matthew Boswell requesting the Competition Bureau launch an investigation into the deal based on reporting by the Canadian Press. They said the arrangement could have “serious impacts … on both access to medication and competition within the pharmacy sector.”

Read: How preferred pharmacy networks can lower drug plan costs, boost access to care

“Access to affordable prescription medications is already a major concern for Canadians,” the letter stated. “It is particularly troubling that people with these chronic or life-threatening conditions will now have fewer options to access the medications they rely on, especially in rural and remote communities.”

Competition Bureau spokeswoman Georgia Simone Fakiolas said the law enforcement agency couldn’t comment on whether the deal may raise concerns under the Competition Act because it is legally required to conduct its work confidentially. But she confirmed the bureau is aware of Manulife’s announcement and the letter signed by Davies and Masse.

“We are aware of concerns about restrictive trade practices in the retail pharmacy market, including conduct that forces Canadians to use specific pharmacies,” she said in an email.

Fakiolas said the bureau is determined to promote competition in the health-care sector along with “greater choice and affordable access to medicine through increased industry scrutiny and by investigating allegations of wrongdoing. Should we find evidence of conduct contrary to the law, we will take appropriate action.”

Manulife has said the shift to an exclusive agreement would give patients “more options” to receive their specialty medications, with patients able to pick up drugs from a Loblaw-owned store or have them delivered to their home.

Read: The benefits of digital pharmacy for plan sponsors, members