Generic drug shortage a danger: pharmacists

A chronic shortfall of generic drugs could compromise the health of patients, Quebec's Order of Pharmacists warns.
Quebec pharmacists are sounding the alarm about the chronic shortage of generic drugs. (CBC)
A chronic shortfall of generic drugs could compromise the health of patients, Quebec's Order of Pharmacists warns.

Many generic products have been in short supply for months, pharmacists say, and by the end of this year about 100 drugs are expected to disappear from pharmacy shelves.

The shortage started at the end of 2009, said Diane Lamarre, president of Quebec's Order of Pharmacists, when 43 generic drugs became inaccessible in Quebec, leaving pharmacists and doctors scrambling.

Previously, Lamarre said, she and her fellow pharmacists were used to some generic medication being unavailable for a few days, but never the long droughts they are experiencing now.

Pharmacists have to get creative to find replacements for the missing generic drugs, she said.

"But for some patients, it's difficult to find an alternative and the alternative may not be as effective as the missing one," Lamarre said.

Dr. Shek Fung, who works with geriatric patients at St. Mary's Hospital, said pharmacies are calling more often to ask whether doctors can prescribe alternatives because the generic drugs are not available.

"It's a real concern [for older patients] — they don't like changing their medication and it's happening more and more," Fung said.

Reasons for shortage questioned

The shortage is in the raw materials, made almost exclusively in India and China.

Generic drug manufacturers claim the shortfall is due to political and natural disasters that have led to a disruption in the international supply of raw ingredients, and they say conditions should improve soon.
Diane Lamarre, president of Quebec's Order of Pharmacists, says it can be difficult to find an alternative to drugs that are no longer available. ((CBC))

However, Quebec's pharmacists speculate that the generic drug companies are abandoning older, cheaper drugs in favour of more profitable products.

Quebec's new drug policy will not help the situation, Lamarre said.

The province announced in June it plans to slash generic drug costs, with savings projected at $164 million a year. The announcement followed Ontario's decision to cut generic drug costs by 25 per cent, effective July 1.

"We are not sure the policy is responsible but we can assume that at least for manufacturers, it's more interesting to produce expensive drugs and most of these are old drugs that work well," Lamarre said.

Provincial governments across Canada need to come up with a national strategy to guarantee access for essential drugs, Lamarre said.

The Quebec government is still negotiating with pharmaceutical companies and does not have a projected date for its generic drug policy to come into effect.