Head to head: Should access to prescription drugs be restricted during coronavirus?

The limitation of prescriptions to 30-day supplies aims to protect against drug shortages, but it’s creating challenges for Canadians who are living on fixed incomes.

Beverley Zwicker, chief executive officer and registrar at the Nova Scotia College of Pharmacists

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged us all to work together for the greater good. We now need to consider and plan for scenarios that seemed impossible three months ago, including widespread shortages of the nation’s drug supply.

Read: Drug plan considerations during the coronavirus pandemic

Impacts of a pandemic are global and simultaneous. Often, they are compounded. In mid-March, we were faced with a choice: operate as usual and hope for the best or take action to prevent a serious crisis. Fear and uncertainty fuelled stockpiling of necessities across the country and globally. In Canada, demand volumes for drugs were 200 to 600 per cent above normal, quickly depleting wholesaler inventories across all categories. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic was significantly disrupting the manufacturing and supply of drugs in China and India, where most of the raw materials and finished drug products for Canada are made.

Pharmacy regulators and provincial governments across the country took action, instituting a 30-day supply limit. This decision was necessary, but wasn’t taken lightly. With a focus on our responsibility to govern in the interest and well-being of the public, our priority was ensuring that all Nova Scotians continued to have access to their required medications. The 30-day limit was successful in replenishing the supply of a number of drugs in Canada; in many jurisdictions, pharmacies are now able to return to more normal dispensing practices.

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As the effects of the coronavirus in China and India become fully realized in Canada over the coming months, regulators, governments, manufacturers, insurers and the public all have a responsibility to come together and consider how we’ll collectively prepare for potential future drug shortages.

We want to thank all Canadians for their continued co-operation. Access to medication is a fundamental need. By working together, we can collectively ensure a safe and adequate drug supply for all.

Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada

Restricting prescriptions to 30-day supplies is an arbitrary decision that’s costing Canadians more for every prescription they fill during the pandemic and may also have a knock-on effect on private drug plans.

The move to restrict prescriptions means that people who had previously been able to receive a 90-day supply will have to spend three times what they were previously paying on prescription preparation fees.

Read: 2020 Drug Plan Trends Report: Developments, data and design

For Canadians living with chronic conditions who are taking multiple medications, as well as people who haven’t been helped by the federal government’s rescue programs — including seniors and those receiving Canada Pension Plan disability benefits — this can be particularly prohibitive.

Our organization has heard from people living on very fixed incomes who previously paid around $14 for a 90-day prescription; now, they have to budget for $42 worth of medication in the same time frame. Someone with multiple prescriptions would likely pay even more. This is depleting the use of their pension funds in an arbitrary matter. We’re especially concerned when we hear reports of people who are compensating for the increased cost of their prescription by only taking their medications half as often as they should.

As for plan sponsors, they may expect to see higher drug claims and larger dispensing fees as a result of this policy.

Read: Should plan sponsors shift their benefits plan spend during coronavirus?

I’ve reached out to pharmacy associations for evidence on how the pandemic is impacting drug inventories, but haven’t received a response that makes sense to me. While Canadians initially went through a period of fear and stockpiling of supplies — which may have included attempting to access larger prescriptions than needed — that time seems to have passed and drug supplies remain intact.

It’s time to ease restrictions so that Canadians, particularly those with budgetary constraints, can receive the medicine they need at an appropriate cost.