03/13/2012 07:32 EDT | Updated 05/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Opposition takes shots at Aglukkaq over lack of action on drug shortage

Pressure continues to mount on federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to take stronger action to solve the burgeoning medication shortage in Canada.

Drug shortfalls have been occurring more frequently in the last two to three years, both in Canada and around the world. But recent production cuts by Quebec-based generic pharmaceutical company Sandoz have left even bigger gaps in the drug supply.

The Sandoz plant in Boucherville, Que., has stopped making a number of commonly used painkillers, antibiotics, anesthetics and cancer drugs while it upgrades its manufacturing standards to meet concerns raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The plant, which makes 90 per cent of the injectable drugs used in Canada, also experienced a fire during the upgrade process and is now in the process of cleaning up, the company confirmed Tuesday.

The disruption in production has led to fears that patients will suffer because hospitals will be increasingly unable to access drugs critical for surgery and treatment regimens.

In Ottawa on Tuesday, NDP health critic Libby Davies accused Aglukkaq in the Commons of failing to take concrete steps to deal with the drug shortage, including making it mandatory for pharmaceutical companies to report production shortfalls for specific products.

Such reporting is now voluntary, although drug makers increasingly are reporting shortages in their product lines.

"The fact is, this minister has refused to stand up and show the leadership that is required on this crisis," Davies told the House.

But Aglukkaq said the provinces and territories decide which drugs are needed in their jurisdictions, and they are the ones that contract with suppliers to fulfil those requirements.

"Our government's role is to assist the provinces and territories by informing them of approved Canadian suppliers for drugs when their current supply has not been met," said Aglukkaq, adding that her ministry had pledged to fast-track regulatory approvals for drug products sourced from outside the country.

Health Canada said Tuesday it is reviewing 15 applications it has received to approve medications as replacements for some of those in short supply. While details could not be provided for proprietary reasons, spokesman Steve Outhouse said some of those applications may be from suppliers outside Canada.

Aglukkaq did send a letter last week to Sandoz Canada, saying the company's "lack of transparency is unacceptable."

"While your remediation efforts to date are appreciated, I further question your judgment in failing to secure your supply chain prior to initiating any actions that would result in a shortage situation for Canadians," she wrote in her letter dated March 2.

"Canadians deserve better," the minister wrote, calling on Sandoz to honour its commitment to make information publicly available on current and potential drug shortages "in a timely manner."

Company president Michel Robidoux, in a mailed response dated Monday, told Aglukkaq that Sandoz plans to post information about product shortages online for the public and is working on securing supplies from other countries.

"Sandoz Canada has adopted a comprehensive action plan to help secure continued supply of critical injectable medications," Robidoux wrote.

In an email Tuesday, Aglukkaq said she will be watching to ensure that "follow-through happens."

The drug shortage issue will be front and centre in the Commons on Wednesday: the NDP plans to use its opposition day to debate a motion which calls for the Harper government to work with the provinces, territories and the pharmaceutical industry to a create national strategy aimed at anticipating and responding to future shortages.