Nova Scotia

Seniors used as pawns in drug pricing dispute: advocate

An advocate for seniors in Nova Scotia says the elderly are being used as "pawns" by the provincial government and pharmacists in the drug pricing dispute.

An advocate for seniors in Nova Scotia says the elderly are being used as "pawns" by the provincial government and pharmacists in the drug pricing dispute.

In May, the provincial government introduced legislation designed to save millions of dollars on the price of generic drugs covered under Nova Scotia's publicly-funded Pharmacare program.

The Fair Drug Pricing Act would cap the price of generic drugs to 45 per cent of the brand-name equivalent in July, 40 per cent by January and 35 per cent by July 1, 2012.

But pharmacists have complained the cap effectively eliminates rebates drug companies pay to pharmacies. Those rebates inflated consumer costs, but they became part of the industry business model.

Now, some pharmacists are telling customers in the province they won't be able to fill prescriptions with a Pharmacare card as of July 1. That means people using a Pharmacare card may have to pay for their drugs up front.

"We're talking about 100,000 seniors and 100,000 other low-income people who have Pharmacare cards and they're going to have to pay in advance for their prescriptions? They don't have the kind of cash flow to do this," said Bill VanGorder, head of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

"They're really being caught in a terrible spot in an issue that is nothing of their doing."

VanGorder said seniors are being used by the government and pharmacists as they continue to negotiate and fine tune a final deal.

"It's not fair and it's not right to put seniors and other people who use the Pharmacare cards in the position of being pawns in this dispute," he said.

Discussions break down

Andrew Buffet, who operates six Pharmasave stores, said he's worried about the impact of the government's plan to reduce the cost of generic drugs.

The Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia is negotiating an increase on dispensing fees with the Department of Health and Wellness, but those discussions broke down last week.

"A large company that sells tires or other things may be able to survive that because they don't really care if they make a lot of money in the pharmacy," said Buffet.

"But 90 per cent of what we do in our stores is in the pharmacy and we cannot continue to operate if we're not making any money on the pharmacy side."

Allison Bodnar, the executive director of the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia, said the government has backed the pharmacists into a corner.

"Whether we accept the level of compensation that doesn't cover our costs and therefore we have to close doors, cut services and cut hours or whether we have to charge people for the actual cost of our service — either way it's not great for anyone," she told CBC News.

Government moving too fast: opposition

Health Minister Maureen MacDonald has said her department is trying to resolve a dispute over drug pricing before July 1. She said she has heard some customers have been told they won't be able to fill prescriptions with a Pharmacare card.

"That's where my focus is," she said.

"I am concerned and disappointed that any people in the province, particularly vulnerable people, are being given this kind of information."

Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the government is moving too fast.

"Once again, the NDP have pushed through extreme regulations without considering the consequences of their actions," he said in a statement.

"NDP policies are putting Pharmacare clients at risk, costing jobs and threatening the future of small, independent pharmacies. Individuals who need prescriptions filled will pay the price for the NDP's mishandling of the pharmacy tariff negotiations."

With files from The Canadian Press

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