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Crohn's and colitis patients fear drug change by UCP government

Last Updated Nov 19, 2019 at 11:21 am MDT

(CREDIT: Pexels.com)

CALGARY (660 NEWS) – Thousands of Crohn’s and colitis patients are angry and afraid after hearing the Kenney government is planning to change their drug treatment in order to save money.

A world-renowned specialist in Calgary is worried the move could even cost lives.

Dr. Remo Panaccione, a leading expert at the University of Calgary and an internationally-recognized authority in the field of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, says it appears the UCP is looking to switch thousands of patients to cheaper, ‘biosimilar’ drugs.

Panaccione says that could cause patients to relapse and even put their lives at risk.

“In our patients, if they lose response, they get sick and if we get can’t get them back, that means surgery. And that surgery, even in the best hands, is sometimes associated with mortality. So that’s what we’re concerned about,” said Panaccione.

He says this situation has wider implications–it’s not just patients with diseases like Crohn’s and colitis but also those with rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and even cancer that could be affected.

“So this is something many of us in the field are keeping our eye on.”

After thousands of people sent in letters to the Kenney government, the province’s health minister is expected to speak with stakeholders, including Panaccione and Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, on Tuesday, November 19.

Mina Mawani, President and CEO of Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, which was behind the letter-writing campaign, says there has not been enough research to make a major change like this.

“We’re worried that it’s going to happen across the country but we’re also hearing that Alberta is poised to make an announcement switching the over 30,000 patients in Alberta from their stable medicines to a biosimilar medicine,” said Mawani.

“There’s been a lack of information, lack of consultation, lack of education and a lack of research on what happens when you’re switched.”

Mawani says patients are very fearful.

“It takes a long time for patients to become stable on a biologic medication, sometimes you fail through several medications before you become stable. So they’re very, very worried that this switch will cause them to lose stability, cause their disease to worsen.”

She says the situation with biosimilars is even more concerning for children.

“Only one biosimilar is currently approved for use in children with IBD (Renflexis). My experience with the producers of this biosimilar is that the affiliated infusion clinics are not prepared for the influx of young children. The North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition recommends that all infusion clinics offering biologic infusions for children have access to PALS (Pediatric Advanced Life Support) trained nurses in case a child has an infusion reaction and must be resuscitated.  My experience with the infusion centres affiliated with Renflexis is that their clinics are inconsistently implementing this recommendation. This puts children receiving Renflexis in clinics without PALS-trained nurses at significant risk for death in the event of an infusion reaction.”

“The governments argue that they have done research but they haven’t talked to us and the entire Canadian Association of Gastroenterology is against it.”

About 270,000 Canadians live with Crohn’s or colitis, which are chronic, debilitating diseases.

In May of 2019, the BC government introduced a switch policy where patients who were stable on a biologic medication were mandated to switch to a cheaper, biosimilar version.

“The government says it’s cheaper, but biosimilars are not exactly the same as a biologic. They are saying that they’re cheaper but we’ve heard from many sources that the originator companies are actually providing the biologic medicines at a similar price range. So why are they doing this?”

Panaccione is encouraged the province is meeting with stakeholders but at the same time, he says it appears there are conditions.

“Government has in the last week said ‘we’ll talk to you’ but they want to do this under what we call a non-disclosure agreement so they want to talk to us but they don’t want us to share our information with either or colleagues and or our patients, which I think many of us feel uncomfortable with as patient advocate,” said Panaccione.

“We understand why government wants to do it and why it’s attractive, you know in an environment where cost-savings is important, but I think that there’s other sort of novel ways to think about doing this without affecting the lives of those patients.”