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Access to cancer drugs and diagnostics 

The role of cancer drugs

Prescription drugs play an essential role in cancer treatment. Cancer drugs such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, biological therapy and immunotherapy work in different ways to destroy cancer cells, stop them from spreading or slow down their growth. Drugs are also being used to lessen, or relieve, side effects of cancer or its treatment. Advances in cancer treatment, diagnostics and care have led to more people surviving cancer. Today, over 60% of Canadians diagnosed with cancer will survive at least 5 years after their diagnosis. In the 1940s, survival was about 25%.

Drug access challenges facing Canadians

The healthcare system continues to evolve and adapt to meet the needs of patients, but there are still significant gaps in care. Canadians with cancer may face some of the following challenges with drug access:

The drug recommended by their oncologist is not covered through provincial or territorial drug benefits or their private insurer. Read more
Take-home cancer drugs are recommended as the best therapeutic option but the province they live in does not cover the cost of these medications, forcing them to pay costs out of pocket
The drug recommended by their oncologist is delayed because it is in the process of being reviewed through the drug approval process

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is difficult enough. People with cancer should not have to face additional challenges and anxiety trying to access their prescribed treatment. 

Drug shortages

Drug shortages continue to be a serious and growing concern within the Canadian health care system that has been impacting delivery of patient care and treatment for years. We know that shortages are deeply worrying to people with cancer and their families – it is simply not acceptable to go without the medication you need.

Pharmaceutical companies must report the following on the website

an anticipated drug shortage

a discontinuation of a drug six months in advance

any previously unreported shortage within five days of learning about it

Gaps in the Canadian healthcare system present an opportunity for the federal government to develop and implement long-term solutions to address ongoing drug shortage challenges that have impacted people with cancer for years. The government must work with industry partners, professional associations, provinces and territories, healthcare representatives and other countries to rapidly identify and respond to disruptions. People with cancer deserve to have uninterrupted and reliable access to required medications in a timely manner, without financial hardship.

Take home medications

For many years, cancer drugs were usually given in a hospital, and patients did not have to worry about how to access their prescribed treatment. Now, many new cancer treatments are taken at home instead of in the hospital. This has many benefits for a person who has cancer – the medicines are easy to take and less travel is required. But depending on the province, it also means the person with cancer has to figure out how to access these drugs.

In Ontario and Nova Scotia, for example, coverage for take-home cancer drugs comes from a mix of private insurance, out-of-pocket costs or various provincial programs. The western provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) have programs for eligible cancer drugs given in a hospital or at home.

The disparity in access to take-home cancer drugs among provinces is not acceptable and must be fixed. Provincial and territorial governments must take immediate action to implement programs for take-home cancer drugs.

Our position

Canadians should have equitable access to the cancer drugs they require without financial hardship, regardless of where they live and where the drugs are taken.