Pharmacy cuts in drug battle worry Windsor seniors

Originally published in The Windsor Star April10th, 2010. To go to The Windsor Star website, please click here

Every month, Anna Beneteau gets her prescription medications delivered from Shoppers Drug Mart right to her door.

For the 85-year-old, it’s not just a perk, but an essential service. She doesn’t drive and relies on a number of drugs to keep her well. The delivery service is free but she always tips the driver.

“I appreciate what they do,” Beneteau said. “I don’t want them to take away my home delivery.”

Beneteau and thousands of other vulnerable people across the province will be left in the lurch if Shoppers Drug Mart and other pharmacies follow through with their threats to slash services such as free drug deliveries and consultations with pharmacists, lay off staff and reduce business hours. The warnings come in response to the Ontario government’s recent push to reduce the price of generic drugs and ban so-called “professional allowances” pharmacies get from generic drug companies. But critics say pharmacy chains are simply using consumers as pawns in their battle with the government.

“It’s outrageous,” said Susan Eng.

Eng is vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, which supports the proposed changes to Ontario’s prescription drug system. “I think Shoppers is inappropriately using scare tactics,” Eng said of the company’s response. In media interviews Thursday, Shoppers CEO Jurgen Schreiber said consumers will end up paying the price with “traumatic” service and staffing changes at Shoppers pharmacies across the province. A Shoppers spokeswoman said Friday it’s too early to say how Windsor-area locations will be affected by anticipated layoffs and service cuts. Rexall also said it will reassess its operations and “future investment plans” in Ontario in light of proposed drug program changes.

“Is it going to hurt the local population? Absolutely,” said Bruce Draper, chairman of the Windsor-Essex CARP chapter. “Many of our shut-ins will have to find a new way to have drugs delivered if the drugstore puts a charge on deliveries.”

This week, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews announced the plan to reduce the cost of widely prescribed generic drugs by half, to 25 per cent of the price of the equivalent brand-name medications, down from the current 50 per cent.

The price reduction will apply to prescriptions filled under the Ontario Drug Benefit program, which covers seniors, the disabled and people on social assistance, as well as private employer plans, and people who pay for their drugs out-of-pocket. By paying less for generics under the ODB, the government expects to save more than $500 million annually. The government also wants to ban professional allowances generic drug makers pay to pharmacies to stock their products and compete with other drug manufacturers.

That has led to an inflation of generic drug prices in Ontario, making them among the highest in the world.

“Health care currently takes up 46 per cent of the Ontario budget, 15 years ago it took up 35 per cent and if it continues to grow at the current rate, it will be up to 70 per cent by 2012,” Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan told a Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday. “People are living longer, prescription drugs are becoming more and more expensive and we have to have a conversation about how to fund this. We have chosen not to close hospitals, we have chosen not to lay off nurses but we have chosen to do something about the cost of generic drugs,” he said. But pharmacies say rebates from generic drug manufacturers have been a significant source of revenue, without which they will not be able provide the services their customers rely on. Independent pharmacists say they will be hardest hit because they don’t have large storefronts like Shoppers and Rexall, which sell everything from lipstick to milk.