Edmonton

Private member's bill to reverse ban on paid blood donations to be heard in Alberta legislature

Alberta legislators will likely debate a private member's bill that seeks to overturn a provincial ban on paying for blood and plasma donations.

Presenters to committee divided on best approach to boost supply

Blood plasma is the straw-coloured liquid component left when blood cells are removed from whole blood. It contains nutrients and immune molecules like antibodies. (Hiep Vu)

Alberta legislators will likely debate a private member's bill that seeks to overturn a provincial ban on paying for blood and plasma donations.

If approved by MLAs as currently written, Bill 204, the Voluntary Blood Donations Repeal Act, would re-open the door for private companies to compensate donors in the province.

Alberta's ban has been in place since 2017, when the then-NDP government feared an expansion of private clinics into the province.

On Monday, witnesses told MLAs on an all-party committee that they have concerns about a reliable supply of blood plasma in Canada. The golden-coloured fluid, which is separated from blood cells, is used to make treatments for immunodeficiency diseases and other disorders.

However, presenters were divided on the best way for Canada to bolster its domestic supply of plasma donations.

Paid plasma can be sold outside Canada

Dr. Graham Sher, CEO of Canadian Blood Services, said the federal organization has few concerns about a couple of small businesses paying for donations, as they do in Saskatoon and Moncton, N.B.

A wider-scale effort by private businesses would be a problem, he said, as companies have no obligation to keep plasma or blood in Canada.

With paid blood bans in Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta, but other provinces allowing compensation, Canadian Blood Services (CBS) has been calling for a national meeting of health ministers to adopt a consistent approach.

"Large scale commercial expansion of commercial plasma collection without adequate controls is a major concern for the integrity of the publicly mandated system and the patients it serves," Sher said.

CBS is attempting to substantially increase its plasma collection by opening up new dedicated plasma donation centres, including one this fall in Lethbridge.

The committee heard that 86 per cent of Canada's plasma products are imported from other countries, where collectors are allowed to pay donors.

Sher said CBS's expansion plans would see Canada provide half of its needed plasma domestically within about five years.

He said CBS is also able to recruit voluntary plasma donors from an existing cohort of regular blood donors.

Compensation attracts donors, prof says

Peter Jaworski, a Georgetown University professor of business ethics who has studied global supply and demand of blood products, said no country can source all its needed plasma with voluntary donations.

"It doesn't even matter to me whether it's commercial or for-profit," Jaworski told the committee. "What matters is whether or not we compensate donors. ... The reason why is because it works. The compensated model is what supplies nearly 90 per cent of the entire world's plasma supply. We should adopt it in Canada."

Kat Lanteigne, head of the safety watchdog group Blood Watch, says allowing Albertans to be paid for blood plasma will do nothing to help increase a domestic supply. (CBC)

Advocates for patients who need plasma-based therapies also lobbied for paid plasma sources.

Silvia Marchesin, president of the Network of Rare Blood Disorder Organizations in Alberta, said demand for plasma-based products to treat disease is ever growing. The ban on paid donations in Canada's four most populous provinces isn't helping secure a Canadian supply, she said.

Kat Lanteigne, executive director of safe blood supply advocacy group BloodWatch, said other nations are moving away from a paid donor system to avoid over-reliance on U.S. products. The urgent need for a domestic supply of blood products became more pronounced when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she said.

"If the government wants to support the export sector of plasma that depletes our supply chain, this bill will offer that result," Lanteigne said.

Committee members were tasked with deciding whether the legislature should debate the private member's bill, which was introduced by United Conservative Party backbencher Tany Yao.

Members of the government-dominated committee voted along party lines, with UCP MLAs supporting the bill's progression, and NDP members opposing it.

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