Commons debates bill to overhaul system for sending AIDS medication overseas

OTTAWA – The New Democrats are breathing new life into its efforts to help Canada send desperately needed medication overseas to people suffering with HIV/AIDS.

Quebec MP Helene Laverdiere on Tuesday evening will debate her bill that aims to overhaul a 2004 law intended get Canadian generic medicines to developing countries, but turned out to be a dismal letdown.

Since Canada’s Access to Medicine Regime was passed eight years ago, only one company has taken advantage of it, sending one shipment of an HIV/AIDS treatment to Rwanda. After experiencing the red tape-laden process, that company said it would not try again until the regime was reformed.

Laverdiere’s Bill C-398 aims to streamline the process, making it easier for generic drug producers to license patented pharmaceuticals.

Her proposed legislation builds on a private member’s bill from the last Parliament – before Laverdiere was elected to the Commons. That version successfully passed the House of Commons in March 2011, but died in the Senate when the government fell shortly after.

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The previous incarnation of C-398, also introduced by the NDP, was divisive among MPs.

Some expressed concern that the changes would weaken motivation among Canada’s pharmaceutical companies to research and develop new medicines, or that the less expensive drugs would find their way back into Canada’s black market. Still others wondered whether there was even an appetite for Canada’s generic medicines, which can cost more than those produced in other countries.

But through the legislative process, the proposed law was amended to a point where a majority of voting MPs supported it.

In its final vote before the Commons, the Liberal and Conservative caucuses were divided, while the entire NDP caucus and a majority of Bloc Quebecois MPs supported the bill.

“I think the whole process last time probably helped clear the air a bit,” Laverdiere said. “There are a lot of newcomers like me, but hopefully it helped and this time around we will actually be able to get through this bill and make the changes that are absolutely necessary.”

Politicians of all stripes were on Parliament Hill Tuesday to support Laverdiere, including members of her own caucus, Conservative MP Dean Allen, Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer and Liberal MPs Ted Hsu and Frank Valeriote.

“I’m feeling all kinds of goose bumps today,” said Jaffer, who was born in Africa and, on several return trips, has witnessed the havoc HIV/AIDS is wreaking.

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The cost of treating people suffering from HIV/AIDS has plummeted from between $10,000 and $15,000 per person per year a decade ago, when there was no competitive pressure in the market, said Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network executive director Richard Elliott, one of many advocating on Laverdiere’s behalf.

The most recent data indicates eight million people in low and middle-income countries worldwide are receiving the antiretroviral medications needed to treat diseases – up from just a few hundred thousand about 10 years ago, Elliott said. But that only represents about half of the estimated 15 million people in those communities who need them – and less than one-quarter of the children in need.

“What we have in place isn’t working,” Elliott said of the 2004 legislation.

The current law requires generic drug producers to have in hand a request for a specific drug before beginning negotiations for a licence with the patent-holder.

“If you jump through these hoops, then you get a licence that allows you to supply one country with that one medicine,” he said.

What Bill C-398 proposes is creating a single-licence scheme, allowing generic drug companies to apply once for permission to produce any quantity of a patented medicine to send to any eligible country without having to re-apply.

“That is simple and straightforward,” he said. “It makes good business sense, good public health sense and good human rights sense … It’s not a panacea, but it’s a necessary step.”

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Conservative MP Terrence Young voted in favour of the bill in the last Parliament, but said he is undecided on this version.

“I still have questions,” he said. “The documentation here says this bill is perfectly consistent with (World Trade Organization) trade agreements, but we’re being told on the on the other hand, that this puts trade agreements under threat.”

Laverdiere said she has spoken with some MPs who didn’t support the last version of the bill.

“I will, if need be, do a marathon in the coming weeks to make sure that everybody understands what it is about,” she said.

Some of her most vocal supporters, the Grandmothers Advocacy Network, will be right behind her.

“We’re really mobilized across the country,” said Pat Evans, who, with the advocacy network, works on behalf of grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa and the orphan children in their care.

“We are absolutely convinced that if MPs really understand what’s at stake and how this bill will help, we will once again end up passing it.”

Bill C-398 is scheduled to be debated a second time Nov. 21 and go to a vote Nov. 28. If a majority votes in favour, the bill will go to a Commons committee for review.

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With a file from Heather Loney.

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