Diabetes specialists 'whooping and hollering' as B.C. trims red tape for PharmaCare drug coverage
Patients can now access Ozempic and Jardiance without trying potentially dangerous drugs first
This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.
Diabetes doctors say they're overjoyed after learning the B.C. government has cut some of the red tape blocking the path of patients seeking access to potentially life-saving drugs.
People with Type 2 diabetes who want PharmaCare coverage of the drug Ozempic will only have to try one cheaper drug first, and will no longer be required to take a second treatment doctors say is dangerous, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced Thursday.
"Ozempic is … a very good drug and that's why we're moving it forward in this way by following the evidence, by putting forward a rigorous and independent process," he told reporters at a press conference.
Dr. Tom Elliott, the medical director for B.C. Diabetes, said the news was greeted with "whooping and hollering and high fives" in his office.
"I'm overjoyed for my own clients," he told CBC. "It's a fantastic day. I can't wipe the smile off my face."
The medication Jardiance, which, like Ozempic, works to lower patients' blood sugar levels, will also be available through the expanded access process announced Thursday.
Meanwhile, Forxiga, another diabetes drug, and the blood thinner apixaban are now fully covered by PharmaCare.
B.C. tracking high rate of Americans seeking Ozempic
The announcement follows CBC reporting that showed doctors like Elliott were becoming increasingly frustrated with the process for proving their patients should have access to Ozempic under PharmaCare's special authority program.
Special authority is only granted to patients when a request is made by their doctor, and in cases like this, it's only granted when cheaper drugs have failed.
Before Thursday's news, patients generally had to have tried both a sulfonylurea drug and metformin before they could apply for coverage of Ozempic.
Elliott has said he refuses to prescribe sulfonylureas to his patients because they are so dangerous. These drugs can cause a person's blood sugar levels to dip so low that they pass out, have a seizure or even die.
Under the new system, no one will be required to try a sulfonylurea before they can access Ozempic or Jardiance through PharmaCare. Only metformin is required.
Elliott described metformin as a "safe drug" on Thursday, but noted that it can cause upset stomachs in about 30 per cent of patients.
Ozempic, on the other hand, is a "fantastic drug" in Elliott's estimation.
"The advertisements you see on American TV are real. The drug is particularly effective for weight loss, and weight loss is a critical part of disease management for people with Type 2 diabetes," he said.
Elliott said his goal now is to advocate for a reduction in PharmaCare deductibles, which remain a major barrier for many diabetes patients.
During Thursday's press conference, Dix also addressed the ongoing Ozempic shortage in the U.S., which has been linked to a TikTok trend promoting its use as a weight loss treatment.
Dix said B.C. has not seen a similar shortage, but the province is seeing a significant number of Americans seeking Ozempic prescriptions.
About nine per cent of prescriptions for Ozempic in B.C. are for U.S. patients, he said. That's 22 times higher than the overall rate of Americans receiving prescriptions in this province.
"We are going to look at that … because we want to make sure that Ozempic is available to Canadians and to people in British Columbia," Dix said.