Manulife-Loblaw deal raises questions over ties between insurance coverage corporations, massive drug retailers

Manulife says its protection of sure specialty prescribed drugs will solely apply at Loblaw-owned pharmacies, elevating questions over the relationship between insurance coverage suppliers and main pharmacy retailers.

For unbiased pharmacists like Kyro Maseh, who owns Lawlor Pharmasave in Toronto, the deal alerts one other shift away from customized look after sufferers who’ve a longstanding relationship with their native pharmacist.

“What it means for the affected person on the finish of the day is that they’ll be choosing up their medicines from a high-volume pharmacy, or mail-order pharmacy for that matter, thus eliminating any form of private care within the course of,” Maseh advised CBC Information.

Often called “most popular pharmacy community preparations,” such exclusivity offers are widespread within the U.S. And whereas they don’t seem to be new to Canada, they’re gaining traction, which worries pharmacists like Maseh.

“We’re slowly transferring in the direction of the American mannequin the place it is all going to be simply high-volume tablet factories,” he stated, noting that some sufferers might need to journey to get to a pharmacy the place their remedy is offered.

Kyro Maseh, an unbiased pharmacist who owns Lawlor Pharmasave in Toronto, says the Manulife-Loblaw deal alerts one other shift away from customized look after sufferers. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

The Manulife-Loblaw association — particulars of which have been shared with plan holders earlier this month — impacts round 260 medicines below the insurance coverage firm’s Specialty Drug Care program.

Medicine on this class are supposed to deal with advanced, power or life-threatening circumstances equivalent to rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s illness, a number of sclerosis, pulmonary arterial hypertension, most cancers, osteoporosis and hepatitis C.

Should you’re on remedy that’s lined by the Specialty Drug Care program and are involved about how this variation will have an effect on you, ship an e-mail to [email protected]

“The very massive and really highly effective insurance coverage corporations basically are exercising a few of their market energy within the pharmacy enterprise,” stated Stephen Morgan, a professor on the College of British Columbia who focuses on pharmaceutical coverage.

Canada spends about $10 billion per 12 months on specialty medication, that are medicines that price greater than $10,000 per affected person yearly. The markups on these medication quantity to about $600-$800 million a 12 months, and insurance coverage corporations like Manulife need in, Morgan says.

“They wish to use the facility of directing these prospects to specific pharmacies in trade for, basically, kickbacks,” he stated.

The Specialty Drug Care program will likely be carried out “primarily” by way of Customers Drug Mart and different Loblaw-owned pharmacies, beginning Jan. 22, based on Manulife. The corporate beforehand additionally lined specialty medication by way of nationwide residence and group health-care supplier Bayshore HealthCare.

“At the moment, to evolve our program, it is acceptable to pick a single service supplier to maneuver this system ahead for the advantage of our prospects and their staff,” stated Doug Bryce, Manulife vice-president of product and platforms, within the announcement.

A pharmacy storefront is photographed at night.
A Customers Drug Mart pharmacy is proven in Bowmanville, Ont., on Jan. 12, 2022. (Doug Ives/The Canadian Press)

‘Shadowy’ agreements

Whereas preparations like these aren’t new to the Canadian market — insurance coverage supplier GreenShield launched a most popular pharmacy community association for specialty medication in 2015 by way of HealthForward — they’re changing into extra widespread for specialty medication, based on Mina Tadrous, an assistant professor on the College of Toronto.

Offers just like the one between Manulife and Loblaw may make it more difficult for Canadians who depend on specialty medication to navigate an already-challenging health-care panorama, says Tadrous.

“They might go to their pharmacy that they repeatedly go to and discover out that they’ve to change pharmacies or go someplace else. And in order that may be regarding and it might be particularly regarding for sufferers that dwell in rural areas,” he stated.

Pharmacy markups on specialty medication — that are pricey to start with — can play a key position in “shadowy” agreements with insurance coverage corporations, says Marc-Andre Gagnon, a professor at Carleton College whose focus is on social, well being and pharmaceutical coverage. 

“There’s some huge cash for these particular medication, which suggests there’s lots of leeway to arrange a system of rebates between the drug producer, the affected person help applications, the insurer and the pharmacies,” he stated.

“You find yourself with these very shady offers which are utterly below the desk, mainly, in a system the place there is no transparency and we simply do not know something about what is going on on.”

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Manulife spokeswoman Emily Vear advised The Canadian Press in an announcement that the take care of Loblaw will present “extra choices” for group advantages members to obtain their specialty medicines, with sufferers capable of choose up medication from a Loblaw-owned retailer or have them delivered to their residence.

“We consider in offering our members higher selection in how they entry and obtain the providers they want for his or her well being and wellness,” she stated.

“This thrilling partnership additionally permits entry to a devoted workforce of knowledgeable professionals, equivalent to nurses and pharmacists, to assist handle and administer our members’ medicines.”

CBC Information reached out to Manulife for additional data.

On its web site, Bayshore HealthCare says Specialty Drug Care plan members may have their remedy shipped to their residence, a clinic or physician’s workplace, nevertheless it doesn’t point out pickup choices at pharmacy places.

Loblaw spokeswoman Catherine Thomas stated in an announcement to CBC Information that the corporate is assured that sufferers’ expertise “will stay unchanged, if not higher.”

She stated that the growth of this system will affect below one per cent of the affected person inhabitants requiring specialised remedy.

“They will choose up their prescriptions from one in all greater than 1,800 pharmacies throughout our community, or have them shipped on to their residence,” she said.

‘Tremendous-profitable medication’

Different consultants dispute the notion that most popular pharmacy community preparations harm competitors.

“Manulife has recognized that they are mainly capable of get a greater deal by going to a single supplier,” stated Aidan Hollis, an economics professor on the College of Calgary, whose analysis focuses on innovation and competitors in pharmaceutical markets.

“After they get that higher deal, the thought is that they need to be passing on the financial savings to their insured prospects,” he stated.

“It is a single sliver of a deal, so the enterprise is way bigger than this. That is simply Manulife, it isn’t each insurer. Most likely these unbiased pharmacies can collaborate, kind chains or collaborations, and determine a strategy to attempt to get again a few of that enterprise.

“There is not any causes for Customers Drug Mart and Loblaws to attempt to get all of it. We’d anticipate different chains to attempt to do the identical factor.”

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Manulife-Loblaw drug deal raises questions over competitors

Folks insured by Manulife will quickly need to get sure specialty prescribed drugs from Loblaw-owned pharmacies, elevating questions over competitors and affected person selection.

On its web site, Manulife says unique availability of its Specialty Drug Care plan doesn’t apply in Quebec.

Gagnon, at Carleton College, stated the dearth of such restrictions exterior of Quebec creates an uneven system the place some pharmacies appeal to “all the large cash concerned with medication,” whereas smaller ones “wrestle to manage.”

“If all of the super-profitable medication for pharmacy chains are being captured by simply a number of the actors, that is an issue for the remainder of the pharmacies,” he stated. “They find yourself with the leftovers, the medication which are means much less worthwhile.”

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