Big Pharma funds group's push for cancer drugs

An organization that successfully lobbied the Quebec government this month to pay for new cancer drugs is defending its ties to pharmaceutical companies.
Three of four cancer drugs that Quebec initially refused to pay for will now be covered by provincial insurance, after politicians and groups pressured the health minister. (iStock)

A group that successfully lobbied the Quebec government this month to pay for new cancer drugs is defending its ties to pharmaceutical companies.

The Montreal-based Coalition Priorité Cancer au Québec receives about half its funding from drugmakers, it confirmed Monday, but doesn’t see a problem with that.

"There’s no conflict of interest. We’ve never backed this or that manufacturer," said Nathalie Rodrigue, the organization’s vice-president. "What we’ve always said is that Quebec pays for fewer medications than elsewhere in Canada."

Rodrigue said her group’s members are all volunteers, and none of its board members comes from the pharmaceutical industry.

"Quebec used to always be at the head of the class in reimbursing the cost of [cancer] medicines in Quebec, until 2007," Rodrigue said. "And now we’re almost at the back of the pack. It makes no sense. If a molecule works fine in British Columbia, why wouldn’t it work in Quebec?"

Government flip-flopped

In October, the Institut national d’excellence en santé et en services sociaux, an independent provincial government body that evaluates which drugs should be covered by public insurance, recommended that Quebec’s drug plan not cover four expensive cancer medicines.

The institute, known by its initials INESSS, said that at $40,000 to $70,000 for a course of treatment, the cutting-edge medications were too expensive, given their therapeutic value.

But Health Minister Yves Bolduc, under pressure from opposition legislators in Quebec’s National Assembly and from the Coalition Priorité Cancer, took the unprecedented step of forcing INESSS to reconsider.

On Wednesday, Bolduc announced that three of the drugs would be covered by the province: the kidney cancer treatment everolimus (made by Novartis under the brand name Afinitor) and the lung cancer medications gefitinib (AstraZeneca’s Iressa) and pemetrexed (Eli Lilly’s Alimta). 

"The coalition’s lobbying had nothing to do with Minister Bolduc’s decision," insisted Natacha Joncas Boudreau, the health minister’s media secretary.

Joncas Boudreau said the decision was motivated by the desire to grant patients quicker access to the drugs in question, adding that INESSS is re-evaluating how it balances access to costly leading-edge therapies against fiscal constraints.

Use of the three drugs will be closely monitored. The province will drop coverage of everolimus in three years unless there’s further proof of its effectiveness, while gefitinib and pemetrexed will be subject to a price-volume formula that limits their total cost to the health system.