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Prescription drug spending lowest in B.C.

May 04 2012

The growth of drug spending in Canada is at its lowest rate in 15 years, while B.C. enjoys the country's lowest spending per person on prescription drugs, according to a new report.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information's report, Drug Expenditure in Canada, 1985 to 2011, released Thursday, shows drug expenditure was estimated to be $32 billion in 2011, an increase of four per cent over 2010. However, the share of total health dollars spent on drugs appeared to be the same as it was 10 years ago, at 16 per cent.

B.C. consumers spent the lowest amount on prescription drugs in 2011, paying an estimated $576 per person. Nova Scotia had the highest spending per person at $985, while the Canadian average was $929.

Drug spending accounts for 12.9 per cent of total health spending in B.C. - below the Canadian average of 16 per cent.

B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong said the government was committed to giving B.C. taxpayers access to the best drug therapies at the best prices.

But Alan Cassels, a drug-policy researcher at the University of Victoria and author of the book Seeking Sickness, said the provincial Liberals shouldn't be taking credit for lower drug costs - no more than Alberta can take credit for being oil-rich.

"There's lots of room for improvement," Cassels said.

Beyond initiatives introduced by the NDP in the mid-1990s to control drug costs, Cassels said B.C.'s lower drug costs are likely the result of a healthy population that consumes fewer prescription drugs; doctors who prescribe less; and an overall "dry spell" for the pharmaceutical companies after having produced such blockbuster drugs such as Viagra for erectile dysfunction, Celebrex for arthritis and Lipitor for high cholesterol.

"This might be a function of the healthy-user effect, which is you have either healthy people who don't need drugs or they are skeptical of the benefits of pharmaceuticals so they try other things, or they don't medicate themselves as much," Cassels said.

"Drug costs is a very complex kind of thing."

Michael Hunt, director of pharmaceuticals and health workforce information services for the Canadian Institute for Health Information, said there were double-digit increases in prescribed drug spending in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

That growth could be the result of patent expirations of brand-name drugs used to treat common ailments such as high cholesterol and hypertension, he said.

"We've also seen the implementation of generic-pricing policies by provincial drug programs," Hunt said.

The provincial government points to its recently introduced Pharmaceutical Services Act as allowing it to control and continue to lower generic drug prices, "saving upward of $170 million a year compared to when B.C. started lowering generic prices in 2009-10," according to the health ministry.

Cassels said it would take at least five years to evaluate the impact of the new legislation.

Despite the seemingly good news for B.C., the report also shows that drug costs continue to increase across Canada, accounting for the second-largest share of total health spending.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com > On the web: For the full report, go to cihi.ca

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