[Ip-health] "Medicines bill in Tory court: supporters" (Embassy Magazine, 14 Nov 2012)

Richard Elliott relliott at aidslaw.ca
Wed Nov 14 13:43:49 PST 2012


EMBASSY, Wednesday, November 14, 2012-8

Medicines bill in Tory court: Supporters
A private member's bill to get life-saving drugs to developing countries has strong opposition support; supporters say Tory votes will decide if it lives or dies.

Ally Foster

While many opposition members are lining up in support of a private member's bill that seeks to change the way Canadian generic drug makers provide name-brand medicines to needy countries, the bill's supporters are working on gaining enough Conservative support to ensure the bill moves to committee after a vote on Nov. 28. 

The bill is approaching its second hour of debate at second reading in the House on Nov. 21. One advocate for the bill says they still need at least 15 Conservative members to vote for the bill to move it forward to committee.

Meanwhile, some supporters of the bill told Embassy that a number of Tory MPs have said they are too busy to meet with them about the bill, prompting advocates to push Canadians to engage with their MPs while they're in their ridings from Nov. 12 to 16. Bonnie Johnson, a member of the Grandmothers Advocacy Network-a group that has been pushing for change to Canada's Access to Medicines Regime since 2007-said that the organization is "very concerned that we're not getting agreement to meet with [Conservative MPs]." 

She added that the group has been trying to meet with Tories in Ottawa in the lead-up to the second debate, but said "we're just getting 'We're too busy, we're too busy, we're too busy.'" 

Ms. Johnson said that the group is pushing hard to meet with MPs during the Nov. 12 to 16 constituency week, as well as encouraging Canadians to contact their MPs about the bill during that time.

Meanwhile, Carleen McGuinty, an international policy specialist with UNICEF Canada, said the organization is "going to fight as hard as we can" to move the bill forward-at the very least, to committee. Ms. McGuinty said UNICEF has also been encouraging Canadians to show their support to their MPs this week.

UNICEF officials will be sending emails to more than 50,000 of the group's supporters early in the week of Nov. 19 to ask them to sign and send an email supporting the bill to a list of key MPs, or to write their own letters and schedule in-person meetings.

Ms. McGuinty said she has contacted the offices of more than 50 MPs to set up meetings to discuss the bill. She said three MPs have currently declined.
Ms. Johnson said the grandmothers network has collected more than 23,000 signatures from Canadians supporting the bill.

Is a single licence the solution?

Canada's Access to Medicines Regime is a legislative and regulatory structure made up of changes to the Patent Act, Food and Drugs Act, and other regulations. It was adopted after the World Trade Organization decided to let generic medicine manufacturers produce name-brand drugs still held under patents in order to get the drugs for health problems like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis to needy recipient countries at a lower cost.

The system has only been used once successfully since its inception, which advocates for change say is because of a cumbersome system, fraught with red tape. The private member's bill championed by NDP MP Hélène Laverdière seeks to cut that.

The bill is a reincarnation of the previous Bill C-393, which passed the House and went all the way to finishing first reading in the Senate in March 2011, but died when Parliament dissolved for an election.

Ms. Laverdière told Embassy in a previous interview that the new version of the bill is essentially the same.

The focus has been tightened and the language has been simplified, she said, but the main purpose of the bill is to provide a "one-licence solution" that would make it possible for generic drug companies to apply for a single licence for a particular drug. If granted, they would then be able to produce and sell that medicine to any of the countries on the approved country list.

Currently, companies have to re-apply for a licence with every new order. Ms. Laverdière said she hears many misconceptions about the bill, which is what she's trying to dispel by meeting with Conservative MPs.

But, similar to GRAN, she said access has been a barrier.

"MPs are very, very busy so sometimes it's a bit of a challenge to get through," she said. "But I'm not one to give up easily."

Ms. Laverdière said she was in the process of trying to tally the number of Conservatives that will likely support moving the bill to committee.

At the time of publication, she said she didn't have a concrete number.

But, "we're seeing extraordinary support from civil society," as well as from other opposition parties, she said.

Bloc Québécois MP André Bellavance told Embassy that his party's four MPs will support the bill, but he would not speculate on the likelihood of it moving to committee.

Liberal MP Ted Hsu also said he and his party support the bill, but added that there are changes he would like to see made if it ends up in committee.

One thing he said he hopes would be re-examined is the list of recipient countries, which he said includes countries like Qatar.

He said that with such a high GDP (the World Bank estimated it at $173 billion US in 2011) many people wouldn't consider it a developing country, potentially causing critics to question the necessity and validity of Canada's access to medicines system.

"Things like that sort of throw people off,"  he said.

Tories split

And although civil society and opposition parties have influence, supporters agree that the ball is in the Conservative Party court. It has majorities in both the House and Senate, some of whom would be needed to vote for the legislation. It's typically up to the individual member to choose how to vote for private members' bills, whereas they are expected to follow party line in voting on government bills.

Ms. Johnson said that if every opposition MP turns up to vote, and votes the way they expect, 140 would vote to see the bill go to committee.

She added that 155 votes are needed to get it there, meaning 15 Conservatives would have to support the bill.

Ms. Johnson said they are very hopeful they will reach that goal, but said it is too soon to tell.

Conservative MP Dean Allison has spoken in favour of the bill. Mr. Allison is the chair of the foreign affairs and international development committee.

"It's an important piece of legislation to help people less fortunate and that's why I support it," he was quoted by iPolitics on Oct. 16. "I certainly will be willing to discuss my views on this and share them at caucus."

His office did not respond to interview requests in time for publication.

Conservative MP Peter Braid, a member of the industry committee, presented a petition signed by people in his riding supporting C-398 in the House of Commons on Oct. 29, but said he doesn't personally support the bill because it would further threaten the intellectual property rights of Canadian name-brand companies.

He added that the bill would not fix the economic issue inherent in CAMR. Generic drugs produced in countries like China and India are significantly cheaper than generic drugs produced in Canada, he said.

He argued that Canadian generic drug manufacturers likely couldn't compete with the prices, regardless of the one-licence solution.  Mr. Braid did say that he's aware of "a small number" of Conservative MPs that are likely to support the bill.

Conservative MP Chris Warkentin made similar arguments when he spoke against the bill in the House of Commons on Oct. 16.

"The bill would eliminate many of the checks and balances that were built into the current regime to prevent misuse," he said.

Mr. Warkentin also said the reforms "would be inconsistent with Canada's trade obligations and harm our relationship of trust with our international trading and research partners." His office also did not respond to interview requests before press time.

Meanwhile, Canadian name-brand pharmaceutical association Rx&D has been lobbying on the issue. 

An email from the company's president, Russell Williams, to Embassy stated that the group is following Ms. Laverdière's bill as it moves through Parliament. "We look forward to informing the discussion on how medicines and vaccines can best be provided to the developing world."

When asked for a clearer idea of Rx&D's stance on the bill, a spokesperson declined comment further.

afoster at embassymag.ca

Richard Elliott
Executive Director | Directeur général
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network | Réseau juridique canadien VIH/sida 
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