Protect our Access: Update on Changes to the Patent Medicines Pricing Review Board (PMPRB)

The federal government’s plan to push patented drug prices lower continues to meet with controversy. The changes to the regulations governing the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) have aroused criticism from patient groups and the pharmaceutical industry, which are concerned that the changes will result in fewer life-saving drugs being available in Canada. Rather than being open to dissenting voices and facilitating a constructive debate, the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, the government agency responsible for ensuring that the prices for patented medicines are not excessive, has declined to engage in good faith with patient organizations, disregarded their input into the PMPRB’s consultation process, and planned to discredit them publicly.

In May 2021, an internal communications plan of the PMPRB was disclosed through an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request. It revealed the PMPRB’s intentions to undertake a public relations campaign, budgeted at $56 000 of public money, aiming to persuading the public – not so much with facts as with rhetoric – that the new regulations are unequivocally in the public’s interest, and to discredit patient organizations that have voiced concerns. The document specifically names the Best Medicines Coalition (BMC), the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders, and “the CF community” (probably referring to Cystic Fibrosis Canada), claiming that they have been “spreading disinformation” and conflating their views with those of the pharmaceutical industry. (CCSN is one of the BMC’s member organizations. Cystic Fibrosis Canada has also expressed concerns about the new regulations and is a member organization of the BMC.)

The communications plan was dated February 9, 2021, not long after the original date on which the regulations were to come into force (January 1, 2021). That date had been pushed back to July 1, 2021; just as that date approached, another six-month delay was announced, so that the regulations are now supposed to come into force on January 1, 2022. The government’s stated rationale for these recent delays is that they are needed to give the industry more time to prepare for the regulatory changes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The concerns that patient organizations such as the BMC and its constituent organizations have raised are legitimate. On the one hand, patient organizations have been concerned that forcing patented drug prices lower will mean that new drugs targeting rare diseases will enter Canada either more slowly or not at all. Their positions are based on careful analyses of the new regulations, pointing out areas of concern without rejecting them wholesale: the BMC, for example, specifically identifies as potentially problematic the new economic factors that determine whether the price of a drug is considered excessive.

On the other hand, the PMPRB’s plan to discredit the above-mentioned patient organizations, claiming, essentially, that they are lying to the public, calls into question its impartiality as a quasi-judicial government agency. It also demonstrates the PMPRB’s lack of interest in the substance of patient organizations’ concerns, showing that they see these organizations as opponents rather than representatives of patients whom the regulatory reforms ought to help.

For more background on this issue and links to other sources of information, see Protect Our Access.