Pharmacy war turning ugly

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Sun Apr 25 2010

If the newspaper ads are to be believed, patient care in this province will spiral downward because of a misguided government plan to get more value for the taxpayers’ dollar.

But it’s hard to see what is so bad about cutting prices for generic drugs (bringing them more in line with what’s charged abroad) and banning a convoluted system of “professional allowances” to pharmacies from manufacturers (for stocking their products) — especially when the moves will free up more than $500 million a year for the province to deal with other pressing health needs.

The pharmacies acknowledge that the status quo is unsustainable, and they say they favour lower drug costs — just not at their expense. Ontario’s Community Pharmacies coalition is painting worst-case scenarios of drugstores being forced to close as a result of the government measures. But Montreal-based supermarket giant Metro Inc. says it plans to open more pharmacies in Ontario (where it operates 82 already).

The big chains are clearly more resilient, with business models based on cosmetics and toothpaste as well as medicines. Smaller independent pharmacies undoubtedly face greater upheaval as the government forces generic drug manufacturers to stop paying them professional allowances. But the government is offering some offsetting compensation, including $150 million for existing and new health services provided by pharmacists.

Pharmacies are also claiming they were caught off guard by the changes. But the government has been in talks with the various stakeholders for several years. The latest set of negotiations began last fall, with the talks breaking off in March. The pharmacies say the two sides were just $50 million apart at the time, but the government says the gap was hundreds of millions.

They’re still not talking. The Ontario Pharmacists’ Association cancelled a scheduled meeting last Friday with Health Minister Deb Matthews in a misguided attempt to rally public opinion against the government. But hounding and hectoring Matthews will not bridge the gap.

The two sides should get back to the table and hammer out a deal that will be beneficial to taxpayers and patients alike.

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