A trio of medical colleges is working through an agreement right now that would allow pharmacists to dispense the abortion pill Mifegymiso in Manitoba â€” something the NDP asked the Pallister government to move on Thursday at the Manitoba Legislature.

"It is the model that is accepted for every other medication," said Dr. Anna Ziomek, registrar with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba.

"We're hoping to make it available to patients if we can work through this by the beginning of the new year."

The NDP Opposition wants the pill to be covered under the provincial Pharmacare drug plan and accessible to all women across the province. As it stands, the treatment isn't covered under Pharmacare.

The treatment can be taken up to seven weeks after conception and is available in several other countries. Health Canada gave approval for the drug, but it is not yet available to patients.

Under the guidelines set out by Health Canada, the pill can only be dispensed by a doctor directly to a patient, instead of the physician writing a prescription.

Pricey, inaccessible 

The cost of the pill — from $270 to $300 — has prompted the NDP to introduce a resolution in the Manitoba Legislature that calls on the province to add it to the list of drugs under Pharmacare, which would make it available to low-income earners.

"That's a lot of money. It would be a lot of money for me, and I have a good job. It is certainly going to be a lot of money for women who are economically marginalized," said NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine.

Fontaine believes Mifegymiso is a much improved way to end a pregnancy over currently available methods.

"I think that this pill is obviously more simple to be able to take than for women who choose to go through surgical procedures," Fontaine said.

The St. Johns MLA also objected to Health Canada's dispensing rules, which state a doctor needs to complete an online training course on the drug and it must also be dispensed by a doctor, not a pharmacist.

Dispensing departure

Fontaine said being required to take the pill in front of a doctor is akin to regulating women's bodies.

"Why can't I go home [where there] is privacy and comfort? But now you are watching me, like I am a child," Fontaine said.

Ziomek said making physicians dispense the pill represents a departure from established norms in the medical and pharmaceutical fields.

'It's difficult to believe that physicians are going to do all the work around the dispensing of the drug.' - Anna Ziomek

"The model has always been you take your prescription, or you fax your prescription, and get your drug from the pharmacist who does the latter part of the work," Ziomek said, adding without pharmacists able to dole out the drug directly, a greater burden and workload falls on doctors' shoulders.

"It's difficult to believe that physicians are going to do all the work around the dispensing of the drug," Ziomek said.

"I think it is cumbersome, and we think if naturally cumbersome, prescribers are going to avoid it, right? So one has to wonder whether this is going to make it more difficult to access the medication."

Dr. Anna Ziomek

Dr. Anna Ziomek is the registrar with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba.

People in rural or northern regions might not find a doctor that has taken the course required to dispense the pill, further limiting its availability, Fontaine added.

During question period at the legislature Thursday, Fontaine asked Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen three times whether he supports covering the cost of the pill under Pharmacare. In each case, Status of Women Minister Rochelle Squires responded instead. 

"Quite obviously the government's approach is that every time I ask a question on women they're going to get the status of women minister to stand up," Fontaine said.

"Will the health minister, under whose portfolio this falls, commit to keeping women's health-care accessible by allowing pharmacists to dispense this essential medication and making it affordable by covering it under Pharmacare?"

No answer on Pharmacare

Neither Squires nor Goertzen answered the question, but Squires later said the province will not make any decisions about the medication until the manufacturer has received approval from the federal Common Drug Review process.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Health said the CDR review takes approximately six months.

Both the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba and the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba have said they believe pharmacists should be the ones dispensing the drug.

Ziomek said if pharmacists are given the right to dispense the drug, they would be expected to make sure patients understand the risks.

The World Health Organization considers the Mifegymiso a safe and "essential" medicine for women. 

Mifegymiso

Mifegymiso has been available in countries outside Canada for nearly 30 years and is approved for use in more than 60 countries with varying restrictions. It was available in the U.S. and Russia by 2000. (CBC)

Corrections

  • A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that pharmacists could soon be able to prescribe the abortion pill, Mifegymiso, in Manitoba. In fact, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba has said an agreement is in the works that would allow pharmacists to dispense the abortion pill.
    Nov 04, 2016 7:51 AM CT
With files from Susan Magas