'It just doesn't seem fair': B.C. MS patients fight for treatment coverage

Most provinces have chosen to cover the nearly $100,000 cost of Lemtrada, a treatment for MS. But B.C.patients still have to pay out of pocket or rely on private health coverage.

Patients still have to pay out of pocket or turn to private coverage for new therapy

Heather Armstrong has been diagnosed with MS. Her mother also suffers from the disease. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

When Heather Armstrong of Powell River, B.C. was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, it was a disease she knew well. It had already taken her mother's mobility and speech.

"It's still terrifying for me," Armstrong said. "Every morning I wake up and you just don't know what this disease can do to you."

For now, Armstrong says her symptoms are minimal. But if that changes, she hopes a treatment called Lemtrada will be an option.

Lemtrada is the brand name of a generic drug used to treat some types of MS. It was approved by Health Canada at the end of 2013 for patients living with the debilitating effects of relapse-remitting MS. It is an infusion that is delivered intravenously in two annual treatments.

Most provinces have chosen to cover the costs of Lemtrada, which amount to nearly $100,000 per patient. But in B.C., patients still have to pay for the treatment themselves or rely on private health coverage.

Armstrong said she and her husband would likely be able to afford the treatment, but believes others who can't should not be out of pocket.

"If we had to, we would find the money. We are lucky that way," Armstrong said. "But I think of all the people that don't. It just doesn't seem fair."

Government pressure

The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada launched a campaign earlier this spring ahead of the provincial election to get Lemtrada covered by B.C.'s pharmacare program, said Tania Vrionis, president of the B.C. and Yukon Division,

"Our position is that patients should have access to all Health Canada-approved therapies," she said.

The Ministry of Health declined to comment on the status of Lemtrada until the results of the B.C. election are final and the next government is in place.

Michele Clarke of Vancouver says she hopes the next government will look past the up-front cost of the treatment and consider potential savings it could bring to the larger healthcare system.

Clarke has been living with MS since 2003. She turned to Lemtrada in 2014 after other medications failed to control her MS symptoms and she landed in hospital.

"I haven't had to go back since," she said. "I know other people who could benefit from it and want it but can't afford it."