What Conservatives Have Missed About Drug Safety

Giving Health Canada the power to recall faulty medicines should have been a no-brainer. Introduced in December 2013, “Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act (Vanessa’s Law)” is the first bill to update Canada’s drug safety laws in over 50 years.

Considering how important they claimed the legislation to be, Conservatives promptly sat on it for six months, bringing it up for only one hour of reading between December and May. Finally, Conservative MP Terence Young managed to convince his Conservative caucus that these changes were desperately needed.

Last week, it was rushed through committee, with pressed timelines and minimal expert testimony. Important health organizations were still sending in recommendations after the fact, unaware that the bill had been summarily moved on to the next stage of debate.

I thank Mr. Young for his efforts on this issue, but worry that excessive partisanship prevented us from adopting the full scope of changes needed to modernize our drug safety laws and protect the health of Canadians.

Let’s take a look at some of the persistent drug safety problems that remain unaddressed in Canada.

In 2013, 12 lots of Alysena-28 birth control packages were recalled because they had an extra row of placebo pills in place of active pills. But, Health Canada recently took the position that an unintended pregnancy is not a “serious adverse health consequence”, but a “lifestyle choice”. Never mind that an unintended pregnancy can have a serious impact on patient lives, and their health.

To fix this narrow definition, I moved an amendment to recognize that health complications from faulty labeling should be considered adverse reactions. It was quickly defeated by all Conservatives on the health committee. Parliamentary Secretary for Eve Adams responded, “certainly this type of incident would not be happening again…for that reason, we are not able to support this amendment.” That is cold comfort for millions of women across this country who depend on their medications to work.

Again and again, Conservatives refused to improve their legislation, despite repeated comments from the Minister that she was open to amendments.

Like so much of what they do, they are centralizing power in the hands of the minister, leaving everything for her to decide, later.

We know that’s more comfortable for them, but when it comes to drug safety and efficacy, there should be clear guidelines from Parliament.

Rather than relying on some information being made public, someday, somehow, with compromises made in backrooms, Canadians deserve a real, modernized, and transparent drug safety system.

For example, it’s important that both positive and negative results from drug trials should be made public, within specified time frames. They defeated that.

Or consider better prescribing standards — we know that doctors need accurate information about drug safety and effectiveness. The federal government has a clear role in regulating drug safety. So they should be leading the way and work with other levels of government and professional associations to implement and publish best practices in communicating the efficacy and safety of prescription drugs. They defeated that too.

And what about direct payments and gifts from pharmaceutical companies to physicians? Most doctors agree these are unnecessary at best and paint their profession in a bad light. In the U.S., Sunshine Legislation was just passed to require that drug manufacturers working with the U.S. Department of Health should report any payments and items of value over $10 given to physicians, physician associations, medical institutions and medical colleges. We should consider that precedent in Canada, and require manufacturers that work with the federal government to report payments to physicians, medical institutions, and colleges. Conservatives refused to even add this to the scope of the bill.

And let’s not forget that the 2012 budget targeted $310 million in planned “savings” between then and now from Health Canada’s budget. Cutting corners won’t get us to the robust, well-funded and independent drug safety monitoring and reviews we all need.

It is good that Health Canada now has the power of recall, but the Conservative’s rejection of all NDP amendments made this a missed opportunity to update drug safety for Canadians.