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Researchers critical of BC attack on drug watchdog

A former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine today criticized the British Columbia government's attack on an independent University of B.C. drug watchdog group.

“I'm a supporter of the Therapeutics Initiative,” said Jerome Kassirer, who teaches medicine at Tufts University in Boston. He edited the the NEJM during the 1990s. “If I was the pharmaceutical industry I'd love to get rid of the Therapeutics Initiative for obvious reasons.”

Kassirer spoke to B.C. reporters as part of a conference call arranged by the New Democratic Party.

“It is an independent organization in which conflict of interest has not been an issue,” he said. “The idea that jurisdictions save more money by involving more people who have conflicts of interest rather than people who don't is completely counter-intuitive.”

The Therapeutics Initiative has saved the provincial government hundreds of lives and millions of dollars by providing evidence-based assessments of pharmaceuticals, said NDP health critic Adrian Dix. The government has responded to a drug industry push to get rid of the TI, he said.

The agency's $1 million a year funding is in doubt and health minister Kevin Falcon has said the government is no longer taking the group's advice when it decides which drugs to pay for through the public health care system, said Dix.

People who write prescriptions are deluged with billions of dollars worth of advertising from drug companies and need solid information based on evidence, said Sidney Wolfe, the director of the Health Research Group in Washington, DC.

“The government needs an independent organization that advises them,” said Alan Cassels, a drug policy researcher and writer associated with the University of Victoria.

“You can be sure you're going to spend a lot more money and have a lot more drug complications if the Therapeutics Initiative goes away and the provincial government doesn't rely on its recommendations,” Kassirer said.

Minister Falcon was unavailable for an interview. A ministry spokesperson e-mailed a statement saying the new drug review model will improve clinical advice, increase transparency and provide more timely information. "The new model provides advice from a much wider array of experts, including clinicians," it said.

While the ministry may not be working with the TI in the future, it may continue working with UBC's faculty of medicine. "We will have new contracts in place for academic drug reviews sometime this year, and the faculty of medicine is welcome to apply for these contracts."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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