Auditors to check compliance with new drug rules
TORONTO - Auditors will be sent into Ontario pharmacies and generic drug manufacturers to make sure they're complying with regulations banning so-called professional allowances, Health Minister Deb Matthews announced Tuesday.
There are suggestions not everyone is playing by the new rules that were supposed to stop generic drug companies from giving pharmacists $750 million a year in fees, said Matthews.
"We are going to be bringing on some auditors to make sure that the pharmaceutical manufacturers and the pharmacies themselves are complying with the changes," she said. "Anything I've heard has been informal, and I think it's important that we actually let auditors go in and do their work."
The Liberal government moved last year to end the professional allowances in an effort to lower drug prices for the government and for consumers. The new rules have already saved the province $500 million in prescription drug costs, said Matthews.
"And it's going to be $500 million and growing going forward, so that is -- even in the Ministry of Health -- that is a huge amount of money," she said.
Matthews was targeted last year by protesting pharmacists in their white coats, who followed her from site to site warning that many independent pharmacies would be driven out of business by the loss of the professional allowances. Their predictions were just plain wrong, said Matthews.
"We have had some pharmacy closures, but we've had twice as many open as have closed," she said. "About half of the pharmacies that closed were independents, but two-thirds of the those that opened were independents."
Between June 2010 and March 31, 2011, Ontario lost 27 independent pharmacies, 15 drug stores from large chains and three mass merchandisers with pharmacies such as Wal-Mart. But during that same time, 77 new independent pharmacies opened, along with 15 new chain drug stores and 14 mass merchandisers.
The Ontario Pharmacists Association said "it's too early to tell" how hard the changes will impact businesses because they haven't been fully implemented yet, and pharmacists are still learning how to cope with having three-quarters of a billion dollars less to work with.
"Anecdotally from pharmacists and independent owners especially, there's a lot of pressure on their businesses ... and our members are seeing it and feeling it in terms of their time," said association CEO Dennis Darby. "It's difficult when you're an independent pharmacy owner in that short year to make up the difference."
The Progressive Conservatives fear the changes introduced by the Liberal government are hurting small, independent pharmacies, but say they will not reverse the ban on the professional allowances.
"There is concern about the McGuinty government's cuts to front-line pharmacy care," said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak. "I spoke to independent pharmacists this past week and they're very concerned about the impact on small businesses. I just wish I saw a bit more focus from this government on patient care."
The New Democrats also expressed concern about the impact of the changes on independent pharmacies, but said the Liberals should have also gone after the brand name manufacturers if they really want to lower drug costs.
"Notwithstanding the fact the brand name drugs is a bigger fish to fry and one that is more national in scope, the work on the generics was really just a small piece of the puzzle," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "I still think we need to get at that bigger piece."
The Liberals blamed the professional allowances for making Ontario drug prices five times higher than some other provinces and U.S. states, and demanded the price of generic drugs be no more than 25 per cent of the cost of the original brand name medication.
In exchange, the government agreed to invest $224 million a year in pharmacies, the bulk of that to raise dispensing fees for government purchases by $1 to $8 per prescription.
"The government has put some money back in, but does it make up the loss? Not yet," said Darby. "And we're still waiting for scope of practice, the expanded things pharmacists can do."
For example, Darby said all U.S. states and many provinces allow pharmacists to provide vaccines, but Ontario doesn't, though it is now expanding the role pharmacists play with patients.
Pharmacists are also paid now to give advice to patients, something newer people in the profession in particular really seem to really like, said Matthews.
"They're excited about being compensated for providing those services for which they are trained," she said. "We used to just pay them for dispensing, for counting pills, and now we're paying them to actually put their knowledge of pharmaceuticals to work."