Free abortion pill remains hard to find in Outaouais

More than one month after the abortion pill was made available for free to Quebec residents, supply shortages and a battle over compensation mean it's still hard to track down the pill in the Outaouais.

Compensation battle, stock shortages forcing women to seek Ontario prescriptions instead

In theory, the abortion pill Mifegymiso or RU-486 became free in Quebec on Dec. 15, 2017, but in reality it's still hard to access. (Linepharma International Ltd.)

More than one month after the abortion pill was made available for free to Quebec residents, supply shortages and a battle over compensation mean it's still hard to track down the pill in the Outaouais.

The Quebec government announced late last year that the pill, designed to terminate a pregnancy under nine weeks, would be available for free starting Dec. 15.

However, some doctors are choosing not to prescribe the pill, also known as Mifegymiso or RU-486, because there has been no compensation agreement between the provincial government and the Fédération des médecins omnipraticiens du Québec (FMOQ), the blanket agency for general practitioners.

"There is a demand. People call clinics [requesting the pill]," said FMOQ spokesman Jean-Pierre Dion in a French-language interview with Radio-Canada.

Dion said the federation was trying to move the negotiations with the province forward in an "urgent" manner. 

Complex negotiations

Dr. Marcel Guilbeaut, the president of the Association des médecins omnipraticiens de l'Ouest du Québec, told Radio-Canada the negotiations have proven difficult because of the complexity around prescribing the pill.

"You still have to meet the patient, you have to have discussions like in the classic surgical abortion, you have to do an ultrasound, you have to prescribe the pill, you have to see the patient for follow-up and to see if there are any side effects," Guilbault said in French.

"And you need to do an ultrasound again to be certain that the abortion did take place."

The FMOQ said its members are not prevented from prescribing the drug during the negotiations, and that physicians are eligible to be reimbursed retroactively.

Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette says the abortion pill remains available, despite concerns about shortages and ongoing negotiations between the province and physicians about compensation. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

In a written statement, Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said that despite the absence of a financial agreement between the province and family physicians, the pill remains accessible.

"Access to the abortion pill is completely and immediately available to gynecologists to whom we refer the current clientele," Barrette said in the French-language statement.

Women sent to Ottawa

Health Canada approved Mifegymiso in 2015, and Canadian doctors were able to start prescribing it on July 1, 2016. 

In addition to the compensation issue, Quebec pharmacists have also said they've had trouble accessing stocks of the drug.

Patricia Larue, executive director of the Outaouais Women's Clinic, told Radio-Canada the clinic hasn't been able to prescribe the abortion pill because it hasn't been able to gain substantial access to the drug.

Larue said that despite the fact Quebec rolled out Mifegymiso in December, her clinic is still trying to obtain an adequate supply, working with the Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux de l'Outaouais to make that happen.

Patricia Larue, the executive director of the Outaouais Women's Clinic, says the clinic is directing women to seek prescriptions for the abortion pill in Ontario, where it's been available since August 2017. (Radio-Canada)

Pregnant women who show up at her clinic seeking the pill, Larue said, are being told to get a prescription from a doctor in Ontario, where Mifegymiso has been available and covered by the government since last August.

"There's a few clinics that offer it on the Ottawa side, so if they are really interested in this method of abortion, at least they can have access to it on the Ottawa side," Larue said.

"Hopefully we'll be able to offer it soon."

​However, according to Planned Parenthood Ottawa, there are only 10 clinics that offer the prescription throughout the province — and only three in Ottawa.

"There's an insufficient number of medical practitioners that can offer the pill, or that are willing to prescribe the pill," said Laura Colella, the organization's co-president.

Laura Colella, co-president of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, says some doctors are unwilling to publicize the fact that they can offer Mifegymiso. (Radio-Canada)

Doctors sometimes prefer not to publicize that they're able to prescribe Mifegymiso, Colella added.

"It's not really a choice if people don't have access to it. And that's the situation where we're in right now," she said.

Neither Ontario nor Quebec's health ministries were willing to provide Radio-Canada with a list of physicians who prescribe the abortion pill.

With files from Estelle Côté-Sroka