Aglukkaq calls out Sandoz on drug shortage

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has written to Sandoz Canada, the drug manufacturer at the centre of a worrying medication shortage, and told the company its lack of transparency is "unacceptable."
Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq appears as a witness at a Commons heath committee on March 13. Aglukkaq sent drugmaker Sandoz a strongly worded letter earlier this month over production changes that have resulted in a shortage of pharmaceuticals. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A stern letter written by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to Sandoz Canada about its "lack of transparency" isn't good enough, according to the NDP, which will propose a motion in Parliament Wednesday that aims to prevent another worrying drug shortage.

The Quebec-based company is one of the country's leading suppliers of generic cancer and heart medications, and a temporary suspension in production at the plant has prompted fears among doctors and patients of a lengthy shortage of the injectable drugs across the country.

Sandoz is also planning to discontinue some of its products but hasn't said which ones. Pharmacies and health-care providers, meanwhile, are seeing their supplies dry up and can't order more from the company. Doctors and hospitals are conserving what they have left, looking for alternatives, and sharing with each other to try to mitigate the effects on patients.

In a letter dated March 2, the federal health minister writes that early notification and transparency are key when a possible supply interruption arises and that hospitals and patients deserve as much advance warning as possible.

Aglukkaq said in her letter that Sandoz is a member of the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association, and last fall, the group committed to a voluntary plan to provide timely and comprehensive information to patients and health-care professionals about shortages.

"Sandoz's failure to make publicly available clear, precise and timely information regarding supply disruptions is contrary to the spirit and principles of the pledge made to me in September 2011. This lack of transparency is unacceptable," Aglukkaq said in the letter, obtained by CBC News.

Aglukkaq says Canadians deserve better

Aglukkaq further wrote that she questions the company's judgment "in failing to secure your supply chain prior to initiating any actions that would result in a shortage situation for Canadians."

Sandoz reduced its production in order to upgrade plant operations after quality-control assessments by the Federal Drug Administration in the United States warned the factory fell short of its standards.

"Canadians deserve better," Aglukkaq writes. She calls on Sandoz to keep its pledge of making information publicly available on shortages in a timely manner.

Sandoz responded to the health minister in a letter of its own on Monday, and told Aglukkaq that it had made information available to health professionals and customers and that it would extend that transparency to the general public by posting information online.

Sandoz also said it is following a plan to secure continued supply of injectable medications and is working on securing supplies from other countries.

The company said Aglukkaq should be assured that it is treating the situation with "the utmost priority and diligence."

"Our objective is to restore normal levels of supply as soon as possible," Michel Robidoux, president of Sandoz Canada, wrote.

Revelation of Aglukkaq's blunt letter to the company did little to satisfy opposition MPs, who say she's not doing enough to manage the current situation or acting to prevent it from happening again.

NDP to propose motion

The NDP's health critic Libby Davies said Tuesday that Aglukkaq and the government are shifting the blame and not showing leadership.

Her party will use its opposition day on Wednesday to debate a motion that calls on the government to work with the provinces, territories and industry on developing a national strategy to anticipate future shortages and to manage them. The NDP also wants drug manufacturers to be required to report any planned disruptions in production to Health Canada.

"There are things that the federal government can be doing and the fact that they're not taking action, they're not showing leadership and they've relied on this voluntary approach — which is clearly not working — means that we have to keep the pressure up on the federal government," said Davies. "We will certainly do that."

It was at Davies' request that an emergency debate on drug shortages was held Monday night in the House of Commons.

The government was also pressed on the issue during question period Tuesday.

Aglukkaq said the federal government is respecting jurisdictional responsibilities. The delivery of health-care services is a provincial responsibility.

"We are not in the business of stepping in provincial and territorial jurisdictions," the health minister said. Aglukkaq said her department is working around the clock to support the provinces and territories and that Health Canada is fast-tracking approvals for drugs from outside Canada.