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Swallowing the costs

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More drugs are being prescribed than ever before, treating ailments that were previously untreatable, or that might even have required more drastic measures like surgery. We have drugs for pain for everything, from tennis elbow to a flaccid libido. We have drugs to curb psychotic tendencies, depression and stress. We have drugs to treat Alzheimer’s, arthritis, AIDS, acne, allergies, angina – the ‘A’ list alone contains hundreds of entries.

Because they are effective, doctor’s are prescribing them. However, because there is as much marketing in the medical profession as there is anywhere else, the concern is that they tend to prescribe more expensive brand name medications rather than cheaper alternatives.

To combat the rising prices, the provinces are working together to get better deals, changing their formulary (list of approved drugs) and using generic brands whenever possible.

Recognizing that this couldn’t go on, Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial health ministers met with federal health minister Allan Rock in Newfoundland this past September in order to work together to bring the cost of drugs down.

"We have 13 different systems, yet we have one Canadian health-care system," said New Brunswick Health Minister Dennis Furlong. "It really doesn’t make much sense. We should be welding those systems together so that we have one approach across Canada."

For years, the Atlantic provinces have grouped their resources together to buy drugs out of economic necessity – like everything, the price goes down with quantity.

It’s still not enough – in the past decade New Brunswick has seen its yearly drug costs rise from $65 million to $90 million. The government was recently forced to raise premiums for Pharmacare recipients, and took two popular arthritis drugs off the formulary.

In British Columbia, which has just settled job actions by doctors and nurses, and increased health care spending by more than 13 per cent, the health care system is also taking a harder look at drug costs.

While some are calling on the pharmaceutical industry to lower its prices, Canadians already pay half as much for drugs as patients in the U.S. They charge what the market will bear, which for Canada, with its socialized Medicare, is not very much. American consumers believe this is unfair – high American drug costs are funding pharmaceutical companies’ research and development, and Canadians are enjoying the benefits.

According to Johnson and Johnson, it takes 12 to 15 years and $500 million to bring a new drug to the marketplace, and less than one-third of drugs that make it to the market recoup their R&D costs.

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