Manitoba pharmacists are defending their profession against accusations of pandemic "price gouging," after they began selling only 30-day supplies of prescription drugs instead of the usual 90-day allotment.

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Manitoba pharmacists are defending their profession against accusations of pandemic "price gouging," after they began selling only 30-day supplies of prescription drugs instead of the usual 90-day allotment.

Critics say pharmacies will now profit with three times the dispensing fees — and customers who pick up medications will make three times as many trips into stores amid physical-distancing orders to combat the novel coronavirus.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Pharmacists Manitoba president Pawandeep Sidhu.</p>


Pharmacists Manitoba president Pawandeep Sidhu.

In March, the province accepted a recommendation from the Canadian Pharmacists Association to limit prescriptions, in an attempt to prevent people from stockpiling medication.

The decision raised concerns among medical professionals, including Dr. Milton Tenenbein, a University of Manitoba professor in the department of pharmacology and therapeutics. In an opinion column Wednesday in the Free Press, he called the move "price-gouging," that was "foisted upon us under the mirage of altruism."

"It’s unfair to limit the availability of all drugs because of the fear that one particular drug might become in short supply. The correct way of going about it is, when it’s identified that particular drug is in short supply, then you act specifically on that drug," Tenenbein said in an interview Thursday.

While the Canadian Pharmacists Association has said the restriction is meant to manage supplies due to an increased demand during the pandemic, the change applies to all prescription medications.

The Free Press has received complaints from Manitobans, who say they are being triple-charged on dispensing fees. One complainant said the change particularly harms "seniors on a determined income that drops in spending power every year due to inflation."

President of the Pharmacists Manitoba board of directors, Pawandeep Sidhu, said the group, which is a chapter of the CPhA, supports the 30-day limit, calling it "crucial to ensure the drug supply."

She said there was already a shortage of prescription drugs pre-pandemic, and shortages beyond medications used to fight COVID-19 were possible.

"The supply chain is affected — the supply chain isn’t for one specific drug class, it’s all medications," Sidhu said.

On Thursday, Tenenbein refuted the claim.

"There's no evidence for that at this point in time. If there was supply chain issues, we would know about that from the government and other means," he said.

As for the reported shortages of propofol and sedatives directly relating to COVID-19 treatment, Tenenbein said the fact it had been specifically reported on "demonstrates that the identification of shortages works, and specific mitigation strategies for that shortage have been implemented."

Meanwhile, Sidhu said pharmacies had been "hit very hard by the pandemic" and are "doing their best to be able to support their patients."

"I think one thing to understand is that pharmacies are not publicly funded," she said. "A dispensing fee covers the cost of our operations overall — the overhead, the supplies, the rent, and all other things to provide a service, as well."

Sidhu recommended any person concerned about multiple trips to have prescriptions filled should check with their local pharmacy to see if delivery is offered.

When asked for comment, the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba provided a brief statement, saying it "supports the provincial order to limit prescription refills to a one-month supply as part of its efforts to fight the COVID emergency."

In a statement provided to the Free Press, the Canadian Pharmacists Association said it "explicitly said that patients should not have to endure any additional financial hardships as a result of this necessary measure to protect Canada’s drug supply" and "has been calling for governments and private insurers to help protect patients against any additional out-of-pocket costs resulting from more frequent refilling of chronic medications due to the temporary 30-day supply recommendations."

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Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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