NWT patients who use some prescription biologic drugs have half a year to switch to copycat versions, called biosimilars, to retain their extended health benefits coverage.
The territorial government says the switch to cheaper – but equally effective and safe – drugs will result in more money being available for residents’ other health needs.
Residents who are part of the territorial government’s Extended Health Benefit and Métis Health Benefit programs need to make an appointment with their doctor to have their prescription changed to a biosimilar drug by June 20, 2022 to ensure they maintain their drug coverage.
Biologic drugs are derived from living organisms. Far from all drugs are biologics, but those that are can be used to treat conditions like diabetes, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and some forms of cancer.
Biosimilars are drugs that are almost identical to the original biologic drug, but which entered the market after the original drug’s patent and other protections have expired.
Biosimilars are regulated by Health Canada to ensure there are no “clinically meaningful” differences from the originals, and are subject to the same standards of manufacturing.
While they are essentially the same as the original drugs, they are not identical due to their complex structure. This is what makes them different from generic drugs, which copy the active ingredient in a brand-name drug.
Drug developers can make biosimilars at lower, more competitive prices in part because they don’t need to duplicate expensive clinical trials. They just need to show the biosimilar is highly similar except for small differences in the inactive components of the drug.
“The biosimilars are, for all intents, identical to the originators, as every new batch of an originator was in fact a biosimilar of itself,” explains Dr John Esdaile, a professor at the University of British Columbia, on the GNWT’s website.
The GNWT has published a list of biologics and biosimilars online.
Biosimilars could save $500,000 per year
“Biologic drugs make up some of largest drug costs incurred by the GNWT’s publicly funded benefit programs and those costs are increasing at an unsustainable rate,” the Department of Health and Social Services states on its website.
“In 2020-2021, the GNWT’s supplementary health benefit program spending on biologic drugs increased by 17.6 percent to $2.8 million.”
Esdaile said since switching to biosimilars in 2019, British Columbia, Alberta, and New Brunswick have saved a combined $100 million.
“These governments have reinvested the money in improving healthcare, particularly for those with arthritis. This has been a big win for both healthcare and for arthritis patients,” he was quoted as saying.
Similarly, the GNWT says it plans to reinvest the money saved “to help fund coverage by increasing the medications that the supplementary health benefits programs cover in the future” and to help ensure the public drug plan remains sustainable.