Alberta's pain medication pitch came too little, too late for other provinces: internal emails

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The Alberta government’s pitch to sell its imported children’s pain medication came too late for one province and was rejected by another within hours due to potential dosing issues, according to internal emails obtained by Postmedia.

The messages between a senior Alberta civil servant and counterparts in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia were acquired via a freedom of information request.

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On Dec. 6 of last year, the government announced it had reached a deal to import a combined five million bottles of acetaminophen (Parol) and ibuprofen (Pedifen) from Turkish provider Atabay. The $80-million purchase came amid a countrywide shortage of children’s pain medication.

Two days after that announcement, an Alberta civil servant emailed Supply Ontario with a query about buying some of the province’s imported medication.

The email was later forwarded to the Ontario Ministry of Health which showed some initial interest.

“We in Ontario are very interested in determining what is possible to accelerate access to children’s analgesics,” reads a Dec. 12 email from an Ontario civil servant.

A week after the first shipment of the medication arrived, Alberta also pitched B.C. on purchasing some of the medication through a Jan. 25 email with the subject line “RE: pediatric analgesic — update and pulse check.”

“(I’m) looking to do an informal temperature/pulse check, and your candid views on the supply situation of pediatric analgesics supply in B.C.,” the email reads.

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It cites a survey of Alberta pharmacies that found 80 per cent of the respondents reported a medium to high demand they could not meet, as well as “early indicators that supply is becoming available, but (there are) still big gaps in many regions.”

“Your candid thoughts on if there is a need for these products in B.C. or an interest to have a stockpile on hand in case a similar situation occurs in the fall?”

A B.C. civil servant rejected the offer in an email sent just over four hours later.

“Our health authorities have been very clear that, at least at this time, they will not accept any products that have a different strength than the Canadian product,” it reads, referencing Parol’s lower dosage compared to typical acetaminophen.

It noted that supplies had recently improved as evidenced on store shelves and fewer queries from the public and media.

The B.C. email also rejected the idea of purchasing some the medication as a reserve supply to be used in the event of future shortages.

“Overall, if we were implementing a stockpile reserve, given the current position of our hospitals, I assume we would favour a Canadian-labelled product over a foreign-labelled product that is temporarily approved for exceptional importation.”

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A little more than two weeks later, Alberta pitched the Saskatchewan government in a Feb. 9 email. The message was exchanged between civil servants and indicated the two provinces’ health ministers had already met to discuss a potential purchase.

The email was responded to a day later with the Saskatchewan representatives asking for a phone call to “get some further details.”

Soon after then, the emails show Ontario soured on the idea of acquiring some of Alberta’s supply.

On Feb. 21, an Ontario civil servant wrote back to the Alberta government saying supply had stabilized.

“As a result of prudent management of the shortage by governments and healthcare providers, and commitment by manufacturers to meeting demand, products from Canadian and established foreign suppliers are once again available regularly in Ontario pharmacists and retailers,” it reads.

“At this point, the Ontario Ministry of Health will not be pursuing the purchase of this product.”

Parol was made available for sale in Alberta pharmacies in late March and was used at Alberta hospitals for six months before they were ordered to switch back to using standard dosage medication.

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In March and then again in September, Postmedia surveyed all other provinces and territories to see how many were considering purchasing Alberta’s supply, but none indicated any interest.

Last month, the Globe and Mail reported that Alberta had only received about 30 per cent of the expected five million bottles, and that Health Canada was unwilling to approve further shipments.

In September, the province said it was no longer looking to sell the medication.

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said in an October interview that the government plans to keep the supply in the event of a future shortages.

“We want to make sure that we have it on hand.”

Her office said Friday that “options are being explored for the remainder of the contract. An update will be provided when it is ready.”

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