Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in this emergency debate. In fact there is certainly a need for an emergency debate and it has been building for some time now. It was almost two years ago, in fact it was late 2010, that the Canadian Pharmacists Association sounded the alarm on shortages.
We have heard the minister this evening tell us that it takes about two years to bring in regulations. That is not much of an excuse, when in fact the Conservative government has had almost two years and it has not begun the process of bringing in regulations.
A few minutes ago the minister said to my colleague to be nice, and I do not think she was being unpleasant or making any particular personal attack, but she did not like the criticism, it seems. None of us likes criticism, but we all have to take it, and we have to take it in this place from time to time, especially when one is a minister. That is the way life is for a minister. One has to take responsibility and be held accountable in this place. That is our job, as MPs, to do that.
The question really is this. Did the minister and her department act urgently when a problem appeared, and did they take the appropriate steps? That is a reasonable and fair question. It is not a matter of not being nice. That is the appropriate question we have to ask here to test the competence, the accountability, the actions of the government.
The fact is that the Conservatives have known about this for two years. The fact is that we warned them several times last year, and my colleague asked at least twice in committee for studies of this issue, to look at the drug shortages issue.
We suggested the idea of regulations. We recommended a mandatory reporting system. All of these have been disregarded by the government. It said it had it under control. It said, “We know what we are doing. We do not have to listen to any of this. We will not listen to you, because you are another party. You are the Liberals. We do not want to hear anything the Liberals say”, which of course is unfortunate. That is a very unwise attitude for any government to take, because the responsibility of being in government is that one has to try to look out for the whole country, or ought to, and one has to accept criticism. One has to accept ideas from wherever they come.
It was two years ago, as I said, that the Canadian Pharmacists Association sounded the alarm and noted that 90% of pharmacists were facing drug shortages each week when filling prescriptions, and it noted that these shortages have got worse over time. This is not at all a new problem.
We talk about this issue with Sandoz Canada. The minister said that particular drug was not sold in Canada. What she did not say was that her department is inspecting that plant and watching what it is doing in a variety of areas, and what is concerning is that the FDA, the U.S. food and drug administration, could find serious problems at that plant, and Health Canada did not.
What is going on over there? Why did it miss these things? Why is it not doing a more thorough job? Why is it not sounding the alarm? Why is it not letting people know about these problems? It ought to have known for two years now about a serious problem in this area. It has done nothing about it.
In relation to Sandoz, it was July 2009 when the first issues arose in relation to this particular drug. Is the minister telling me that every other drug was being manufactured exactly to standard, that no problems existed when there were repeated manufacturing problems identified by Sandoz Canada? That really stretches credibility.
In the fall my colleagues and I held a round table with drug experts across the country on the drug shortages, because we were becoming concerned about what was happening, what we were hearing from pharmacists and what we were hearing from patients, for instance, who had epilepsy.
I have a bill to make March 26 purple day. I appreciate the support of members around the chamber. It has gone off to the Senate now, but through the process of working on that, I have heard from people with epilepsy and those involved in those organizations about that shortage. It is not a new problem, but what is the government doing about it?
We hear the minister saying her department will watch what happens and maybe it will bring in some kind of regulation. This is two years into the problem that she is saying this. We know it did not do that when it came to sodium or trans fats. Once again, instead of having a mandatory reporting system, it went voluntary. It is a voluntary reporting system, so it has had opportunities over and over to take action and has failed to do so. That is disturbing.
In fact, the reporting system the government brought in, the voluntary one, is truly toothless. It does not have any bite.
What really astonishes me, in view of that, is that tonight the minister, who up until now has been blaming the provinces for the problems, now blames the pharmaceutical generic drug company, Sandoz Canada, for not giving notice and for not putting it on this voluntary website earlier. What did the government expect when it made it voluntary?
Even now, when the minister sees that it has not taken advantage of this voluntary reporting system and has not reported on that and she expresses her frustration and anger at Sandoz Canada for not doing what she says it should have, instead of saying, “Now we're going to put them down hard and we're going to make this mandatory”, she is saying, “Look. We're going to watch things and if things don't improve, maybe we'll regulate”.
We can go back to what I said at the beginning about our responsibility to hold ministers and the government to account and what standard we have to apply. It seems to me clear that the minister and the government are not meeting a reasonable standard in this case. If there were real concern, if they were acting quickly, if they were acting with alacrity, if they saw this as urgent, surely they would do more than say, “Well, we aren't happy with Sandoz but maybe, if things don't improve over the next who knows how long, maybe we'll bring in some regulation”. Boy, that is really cracking the whip. Can members imagine a tougher approach? I sure can, as a matter of fact.
However the fact is, as my colleague has said, that ensuring a safe supply of essential drugs is a key responsibility of the Government of Canada. Who inspects these places? It is not the provinces. It is Health Canada. It does inspections. It is its responsibility to oversee that. Surely, this is a national issue for all of us across the country to ensure we have equal access to health care, equal access to these important drugs.
It is not a new problem, this shortage of essential drugs needed for common health issues and procedures. This shortage has been going on for quite a while. As my colleague said earlier, it is not limited to Canada. It is a global problem. Therefore, to say that during this crisis we are going to get them from other countries, which was one of the answers the government suggested, how does that make sense if it is a global shortage?
One of the problems here is that the provinces have not had advance notice. The provinces did not hear from the Government of Canada about this in advance. They heard about it two weeks ago. They had no advance warning, the kind of warning that Health Canada ought to have been able to give them and ought to have given them. In fact, had they been able to know sooner, they could have started to make adjustments.
I mentioned epilepsy. People with epilepsy who have to change the medication they are on cannot do it at the flip of a switch. It takes time. They have to reduce one drug and then start another one gradually. They cannot do it instantly. Of course, in that transition, there are difficulties. Obviously if they have a drug that is working well and suddenly they have to use less of it, that is a concern. Then they have to switch to a new one, which they hope will not have negative side effects, and see how that goes, and then they ramp up gradually. That is why it is so important that the provinces get notice ahead of time and get a chance to prepare for this. It is all the more reason to have a mandatory reporting system.
I know we have heard the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association say that generic pharmaceutical manufacturers are pursuing all options in trying to find ways to deal with this, and I appreciate that, and that there are shortages from time to time. However, the question is not whether there are shortages but how the government deals with these issues.
The Best Medicines Coalition, which is a national broad-based alliance of patient organizations, is extremely concerned about these shortages. It is seeing them. We are hearing about this from patients. We are hearing about it from all kinds of medical groups. Pharmacists, obviously, are experiencing this on a daily basis.
When drug shortages occur, patients are at risk, so why would the minister say it is the provinces' fault, because they only had one source for each of their drugs? Why would she say it is the company's fault? Why would she not say, “Look. We have a responsibility here. We're going to take action now. We're not going to say 'Maybe some day we'll take action'. We're going to act now and do something about this.”?
Disruptions in drug supply can compromise patient care. In some cases, such as drugs that are used in surgery, they can be life threatening. That is a scary thing.
It is an urgent matter. It is time for the government to take an active role and get on the ball with this. It is time for the government to realize that urgent action is required. It is time to wake up, get moving, get the ball rolling and bring in mandatory reporting. It is not the time to be making excuses and blaming the provinces.