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BC to keep CETA drug patent letter secret

British Columbia officials have decided to keep secret a letter regarding trade with Europe that Premier Christy Clark had previously said she believed could be released.

During debate of her office's budget on May 31, Clark responded to a question from NDP Leader Adrian Dix about drug patent extensions European negotiators want in the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement by saying, "All Premiers, all governments, have sent a letter to Canada expressing our concerns about that."

Extending patents on pharmaceuticals would cost B.C. around $250 million a year according to one report, said Dix.

When Dix asked Clark about releasing the letter, she said, "I am advised . . . that we will likely be able to share it with the opposition, subject to concerns about confidentiality. But my understanding is that we'll likely be able to share that."

Dix said he's yet to receive the letter. "I haven't heard anything back from them," he said in a June 18 interview.

The Tyee also asked a Premier's Office official for a copy of the letter, but was directed to the ministry of health which she said had custody of the letter.

An official with health sent an email saying the letter could not be released. "The discussions around the Comprehensive Trade and Economic Agreement are confidential, and we have signed a confidentiality agreement with the federal government," it said.

"It would not be appropriate for the ministry to talk about the state of the negotiations in detail or to release the letter you’ve requested at this time, as it could negatively affect the current negotiations and our provincial strategies as well as be harmful to our intergovernmental relationship with the Government of Canada, other provinces, and our European trade partners," it said.

Going back on the commitment would "jeopardize our chances" of being invited to discussions of future trade agreements, it said.

Though the letter has to be kept confidential, provincial negotiators are fighting to keep drug prices from rising, he said. "The province has a very strong position on pharmaceutical drugs in regards to negotiations, and we don’t want to see any increased costs as a result of the agreement," it said. "As the premier confirmed during estimates, the letter reflects this view."

Dix said with the provincial government's secrecy it is difficult to know what B.C. is telling the federal government or saying at the negotiating table. "To be opaque is not a positive performance indicator for the province," he said. "You have these issues that have huge implications for health care and other areas and you have no idea what's the position of the province."

The province may not be taking positions that are best for the public, he said. "I'm concerned the public interest isn't being protected and public health care isn't being protected."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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