What’s behind Canada’s drug shortage? One expert says ‘money’

WATCH: If you’ve tried to fill a prescription drug and been told it’s out of stock — you’re not alone. Su-Ling Goh investigates.

EDMONTON – The Canadian Medical Association says drug shortages in Canada have become a big problem, and it seems to only be getting worse.

Health Canada is now studying the issue, starting with a six-week consultation on how to avoid pharmaceutical shortages. Some, however, say that’s not enough.

Desmond Osborn, who suffers from epilepsy, recently had to phone five pharmacies to refill his prescription for anti-seizure medication.

“I think it’s insane,” he said, “when it comes down to stuff like this. This isn’t Aspirin or Tylenol; this isn’t, ‘Oh, I have a headache.’ This is people that need this so they can function every day.

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“If you can’t get your epilepsy medication, you start to stress out, and stress is one of the main factors of seizures.”

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He’s been told the problem with his medication is at the manufacturing level.

Apo-Clobazam, used to treat seizures, is one of more than 500 drugs listed on the government website

Toronto health policy professor Dr. Joel Lexchin says the problems began about five years ago.

“It’s getting worse for a number of reasons. One of them, and the main one, is money,” he said.

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Pharmaceutical companies have been outsourcing production to facilities in India and China, Lexchin added, where quality control can vary.

“So sometimes the active ingredient is contaminated and can’t be used.”

Lexchin says that many of the drugs in short supply are generic. He believes companies have stopped making them to focus on the ones with higher profit margins.

When a drug becomes scarce, companies can warn prescribers and suggest an alternative by posting it on the Canadian Drug Shortage database. Right now, that’s voluntary.

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose says she is open to changing the policy.

“I’ve never had any qualms about moving to a mandatory system, but we need to make sure that system, whatever it is we put in place, is fixing the current problems,” Ambrose said.

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READ MORE: Federal and Alberta Health Ministers announce new plan for dealing with drug shortages

Lexchin feels Health Canada should develop a list of “medically important” drugs and ensure there are alternate suppliers for emergencies.

Companies are currently only asked to give one month’s warning that a drug will be discontinued. Health Canada is looking at changing that to six months.

Late Monday evening, an Alberta Health Services spokesperson sent Global News the following statement:

Alberta Health Services does everything possible to minimize patient impacts from drug shortages. Effective and safe treatment is our first priority. Alberta has been through drug shortages in the past, and strategies were developed at the time that ensures safe patient care and mitigates potential patient impact.

AHS closely monitors hospital stock levels and pursues alternative sources of medications where possible and as necessary. AHS also works with physicians and clinicians to provide them with the latest information on affected drugs, as well as alternatives and other options.

Alberta Health and AHS also work with Health Canada, and other provinces and territories, to monitor national drug supplies, to share options for drug conservation and to share alternatives for affected products.

Drug shortages have also been happening in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.

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With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News