The Hamilton Spectator

Manulife cancels Loblaw drug deal

Public backlash over exclusive contract surprises professor

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Manulife Financial Corp. says patients who require specialty drugs will be able to fill their prescripti­ons at any pharmacy after backlash sparked by the insurance provider signing an exclusive arrangemen­t with Loblaw Cos. Ltd.

The insurance provider had told patients last month its specialty drug program would transition to being carried out “primarily” through Shoppers Drug Mart and other Loblaw-owned pharmacies. Manulife had previously also covered specialty drugs through national home and community health-care provider Bayshore HealthCare.

“We have listened to and are addressing the concerns we have heard over the past week,” Manulife Canada chief executive Naveed Irshad said in a statement on Monday.

“Though this change impacts only a small number of our members, it helps ensure that all Canadians we support have choice, access and flexibilit­y in managing their health. We are proud to partner with thousands of pharmacies across the country and contribute to a strong and healthy Canadian health care system.”

Manulife’s specialty drug program affects around 260 medication­s meant to treat complex, chronic or life-threatenin­g conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis, pulmonary arterial hypertensi­on, cancer, osteoporos­is and hepatitis C.

Patients covered under the program represent less than one per cent of all those insured through Manulife, the company said, adding that “across the rest of our business, we have always offered Canadians the option to choose their pharmacy.”

Deals that provide exclusivit­y for a particular pharmacy to distribute drugs under an insurance plan are known as preferred pharmacy network arrangemen­ts. Researcher­s have said those arrangemen­ts are common in the U.S. and growing in Canada.

Loblaw spokespers­on Catherine Thomas said in a statement that Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies “will continue to support patients, providing a holistic approach to care for Canadians living with some of the most complex diseases.”

Some had expressed worry that specialty drugs could become less accessible to those in rural or remote regions who don’t live near a Shoppers Drug Mart as a result of the previously announced deal.

Marc-André Gagnon, a professor at Carleton University who focuses on social, health and pharmaceut­ical policy, said he was surprised by the level of attention the deal received.

“Normally, this kind of stuff is always under the radar and basically nobody’s asking questions about this,” he said. “I’m not surprised that with media coverage, the insurance company changed its decision because they were looking very bad in doing something like this.”

In an update posted to its website, Manulife said it’s implementi­ng the change “swiftly.”

Gagnon said although Manulife reversed course, the issue isn’t going away. He noted Quebec remains the only province in Canada where there are restrictio­ns that prevent insurance providers from entering into preferred pharmacy network arrangemen­ts.

“It’s not a one-time event, bad decision by a private drug plan,” he said.

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