A WIN FOR THE GOOD GUYS

On a believe-it-or-not week when Canadians clamoured to listen live to our sedate chamber of relatively sober second thought and heard more than senatorial snores, some good news from Victoria managed to trickle through the crashing, rhetorical waves of the Poor Me Trio. Or, as The Current referred to them on Friday: “Messrs. Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin.” I guess that really makes Ms. Wallin one of the boys…. Anyway, the positive news was the long overdue restoration of government funding to an acclaimed institution that had friends and supporters everywhere, except in high places. Read all about it:

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It’s too bad that British Columbia’s most valuable guardian of the efficacy of new prescription drugs wasn’t called something grabby, like On Your Side or WatchdogBC. That might have slowed or even forced a halt to the seemingly methodical quest by the Liberal government to weaken its role and smooth the path of drugs to the province’s PharmaCare program.

As it was, the public found it hard to rally behind a review panel with the unhelpful title of Therapeutics Initiative. What the heck was that? No matter that its cautious approach to greenlighting drugs had saved hundreds of millions of dollars and many lives over the year, plus contributing to B.C. spending less per capita on prescription drugs than any other province in the country. Whenever the Therapeutics Initiative (TI) was raised as an issue, eyes of the public and editors would mostly glaze over, waiting for a return to pipelines or ferries or the miracle drug LNG, something that fit easily into an understandable headline.

But ‘big pharma’ certainly knew what it was, as did public interest advocates across North America, loathing and loving the Therapeutics Initiative in equal measure.

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The TI is a group of independent, research-minded faculty members at UBC’s School of Medicine. Since 1994, they have had the task of scrutinizing the cost and health benefits of new, often-expensive drugs promoted by brand-name pharmaceutical companies and assessing whether they should be covered by PharmaCare. Much to the annoyance of the drug companies, the TI regularly took its time. There was no rush to judgement. Nor was the TI shy about questioning, when warranted, the purported value of the latest ‘breakthrough’ drug. Their caution led to far less use in B.C. of several drugs that were subsequently withdrawn from the North American market after causing numerous deadly side-effects elsewhere.

In 2008, however, as large political donations from the pharmaceutical industry piled up, the ruling Liberals began to take aim at the Therapeutics Initiative. Following the recommendations of a faux task force with strong drug company representation, the TI’s funding was slashed by nearly 50 per cent, while more and more drugs were referred to the Common Drug Review in Ottawa. Those in the health ministry who understood the agency’s worth were silenced.

In vain was the TI’s rigorous work also championed by advocates ranging from former editors of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine to members of the U.S. drug safety committee to Conservative MP Terence Young, whose 15-year old Imagedaughter died from an adverse drug reaction. “People on the Therapeutics Initiative work only on the evidence. They hurt drug sales,” Young told me during an impassioned plea for full funding to be restored. “They embarrass governments. They are a Canadian jewel.”

Not only did these pleas fall flat, the situation got worse. Just over a year ago, the TI’s remaining annual funding of $550,000 was cut off completely. The government blamed an alleged privacy breach among its health research staff and a resulting freeze on distribution of data. That left the TI, which was not involved in the case at all, with almost nothing to do. Many saw this as a convenient excuse for the Libs to kill off an operation that was far too independent for their liking. Neither Premier Clark nor Health Minister Terry Lake did much to counter that view.

This time, however, the mainstream media began to weigh in. CKNW talk show host Bill Good took the issue on. The Vancouver Sun’s Lori Culbert did some fine, investigative work. Among other things, she disclosed that pharmacies and drug companies donated nearly $600,000 to the B.C.  Liberals over the past eight years, 14 times the relative pittance they doled out to the NDP. The Sun even wrote a hard-hitting editorial, urging the Liberals “to step up, reverse their decision, and pledge their continued support for a group that has more than proved its worth to every British Columbian.”

Finally, with the departure of Gordon Campbell-appointee Graham Whitmarsh as deputy health minister and the fine Stephen Brown in his place, the government listened. Health Minister Terry Lake announced this week that the Therapeutics Initiative would be resuming its valuable work. The $550,00 was back in place.

Sometimes the good guys win. Even in politics.

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