Thalidomide is a drug with a dubious history. Once prescribed as a sedative and to counteract morning sickness for pregnant women, it turned out to be disastrous for their babies, many of whom were born with shortened limbs and other serious birth defects. More recently, however, it has proven effective in treating a form of cancer called multiple myeloma.
The maker of the drug, Celgene Corp., is making a nice little profit out of what is now called Thalomid; I blogged about this back in August last year, after it was revealed that Celgene was playing the bureaucratic game by not applying to have its drug approved for general use by Health Canada. It has only been available, under our rules, through a special access program, which effectively prevents the sale of generic versions of the medicine.
Until recently, some Canadians in modest circumstances managed to qualify to receive the drug free of charge through Health Canada. This all changed, however, with the introduction of another last-chance drug, Velcade, produced in Canada by Ortho Biotech. This one will have patent protection until doomsday, and is already proving to be another fine money-maker for the Big Pharma folks--one five-month treatment cycle costs up to $35,000.
Because of the availability of Velcade on the market, Health Canada bureaucrats have decided to stop providing Thalomid under its special access program. Velcade is presently covered under all Canadian provincial medical plans--except Ontario's. Health Canada refuses, however, to release a free drug that can save lives in this province, and, for its part, the Ontario government would rather spend its money on roads and bridges.
The official excuse used by Ontario to justify not covering the medication is that a committee of "experts" has recommended that it not be publicly funded. But no one in the Ontario government has apparently bothered to ask them to explain why they disagree with their equally-qualified colleagues in twelve other Canadian jurisdictions. Instead, in the words of Ontario Health Ministry spokesman John Letherby, "When that committee makes a recommendation...the Ministry of Health stands behind it."
If you are an Ontario resident, in other words, and can't meet Velcade's inflated price-tag, that's just too bad--you're going to die. Just ask Raymond Bouchard.
Mr. Bouchard is a retired carpenter living in Northern Ontario. Thalomid is his last chance, because he can't afford Velcade. It's available free from Celgene because of his desperately poor financial circumstances. But he can't get it.
"When the [Ontario] Ministry of Health says 'No,' it is absolute," says Colleen Savage, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Advocacy Coalition of Canada. The same, apparently, applies to Health Canada. Not that the latter isn't sorry about it: a Health Canada spokeswoman said, "Obviously this is a very unfortunate place for this man to be, beyond unfortunate." Hand-wringing, however, won't save Mr. Bouchard.
The Globe and Mail seems to have taken this on as a cause, providing extensive coverage of the issue over the past few days. But the blogosphere, notably a place of much twittering and chirping about the alleged failure of the "MSM" to report on matters of substance, is virtually silent on the slow killing of Mr. Bouchard and others like him in Ontario. He is being murdered--let's not mince words, this is a deliberate, cold-blooded act--by bureaucrats who know his circumstances perfectly well but are withholding life-saving medication; and by grubby politicians who don't give a damn whether people like Mr. Bouchard live or die.
This is my country. In 2006. And I am ashamed.
UPDATE: The outcry worked: it was all a "clerical error" we are told. But, apparently, only Mr. Bouchard, and not others in his predicament, will benefit.