Battle lines harden over drug reform plan

Originally published in the Guelph Mercury April 17th, 2010. To go to the Guelph Mercury website, please click here

GUELPH — Battle lines are being drawn in a growing skirmish between pharmacists and Queen’s Park over the Liberal government’s controversial drug reform plan to cut costs to the public purse.

That dispute hasn’t affected pharmacy services in Guelph to date, but that may be only a question of time.

Shoppers Drug Mart, one of the largest pharmacy chains, cut hours of service Tuesday in seven of 20 London, Ont. stores by two to three hours a day and next Monday is introducing fees for deliveries, spokesperson Tammy Smitham said in a telephone interview.

“(We have) no plans for Guelph at the moment,” she said. But she stressed Shoppers will announce service reductions in other Ontario communities on Friday.

Rexall, a Katz Group Canada drugstore chain, announced Tuesday it will also charge for deliveries starting next Monday and is imposing a hiring freeze at corporate headquarters.

While the consumer is caught in the middle of this growing battle, Smitham said “we never want to impact patient care negatively in any way.”

But that’s exactly what they’re doing, countered CARP (formerly known as Canada’s Association for the 50Plus) advocacy vice-president Susan Eng, who’s organization represents older Canadians, including retired seniors.

“I think it’s outrageous,” she said. “That’s really insane.”

Eng called drug chain actions “a scare tactic” and added its unfair considering the government reforms haven’t even become law yet.

Guelph Norfolk Pharmacy owner Sultan Asaria said he shares the concerns of Shoppers and other pharmacy stores that the reforms will harm the sector, including his downtown shop.

“It’s going to have a big detriment to our business, as well,” he said.

Asaria hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll have to cut hours and services because he’s awaiting details from the health ministry on the ramifications for drug stores.

“I don’t think everything’s out yet,” he said.

Riaz Damji, owner of Surrey Prescriptions in Guelph said he’ll likely have to modify his operations if there’s less money coming in.

“Of course we’ll be affected: our income will go down,” he said. “If you don’t have the resources, you can’t have the services.”

Damji was dismayed pharmacy critics, like the health ministry, are portraying Shoppers in a bad light when all it’s doing is reacting to the government putting stores on notice they’ll earn less. Reducing services in the face of declining revenue is just good management, he said.

The cash-strapped government of Premier Dalton McGuinty is cutting generic drug prices substantially to reduce costs to the public. It’s eliminating $750 million annually in professional allowances drug makers pay pharmacists. Health Minister Deb Matthews, whose London riding is the site of the initial Shoppers to reduce hours, described the allowances as little more than kickbacks that raise drug prices.

Shoppers countered they cover the cost of a host of “value-added” services, like free delivery, callbacks, blood glucose monitoring of some patients and the like. Drug stores were already dealing with a difficult situation before the cuts, Smitham said.