Senate urged to quickly pass ‘Medicine for All’ bill

By 
  • March 16, 2011
Senator Sharon CarstairsOTTAWA - Supporters of the “Medicine for All” Bill C-393 hope the bill can pass the Senate before a possible spring election call that would see the bill die.

“This is one of those rare moments of life, where you have a precious window of opportunity, you either open it or you don’t,” said Dr. James Orbinski, Dignitas International founder and a University of Toronto public health professor. “Let’s make it happen.”

The bill, which passed the House of Commons March 9, would amend the Access to Medicine Regime and make cheaper generic drugs available to the world’s poor. Opponents are against this as it would infringe upon trademark and other rights held by big pharmaceutical companies.

The window of opportunity may be very small. The government will be tabling the budget on March 22. If the Opposition parties do not support it, or support a non-confidence motion before the budget vote, the government falls and the bill dies.

“It would be very disappointing if the bill were killed and we had to begin again,” said Orbinski. “If it is killed, we will begin again.”

Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs will shepherd the bill through the Senate. It had been guided through the House by NDP MP Paul Dewar.

“This bill is an important component of our Aid to Africa initiative,” said Carstairs in an e-mail. “Drugs are essential to those suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and C-393 is a means by which we can facilitate the production and sale of these life-saving drugs at a reasonable cost.

“Canadians understand this. If this bill does not move quickly through the Senate it will be because the government leadership in the Senate has chosen not to do so. It is in their hands and on their heads if it fails.”

Several prominent Canadians, including Orbinksi, Stephen Lewis and recording artist K’naan, as well as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and many civil society groups have thrown their support behind the bill.

“We hope that Canadians will let Mr. Harper and, of course, senators know they want this bill to pass before an election,” said Richard Elliott, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “People are dying because we are not moving fast enough.”

Though both the House and the Senate were on break March 14-18, Elliott said senators could pass the bill in a matter of days if there is a will to rise above partisan politics.

The bill’s supporters have set up a web site to advance their cause. According to www.letdemocracywin.ca, the success of Bill C-393 showed “logic and evidence prevailed over misinformation from a well-funded corporate lobby.”

Though most Conservatives voted against the bill, 26 back benchers from the government side supported it, giving it all-party support.

“I don’t think this bill is helpful,” Industry Minister Tony Clement told journalists the day of the vote.

Clement said the federal government is delivering “millions of pills to Africa” to counter HIV, malaria and other diseases. He said the bill seemed to serve the commercial purposes of generic drug manufacturers more than humanitarian aims. It’s cheaper for African countries to buy generic drugs from India, he said.

The government would prefer to directly fund NGOs who can purchase cheaper drugs from India or Asia, said a spokeswoman for Clement in an e-mail. The government has also raised concerns about generic drugs appearing on the black market. Others have raised concerns about intellectual property rights and incentives for research and development for pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s not about patents, it’s not about factories, it’s not about health care systems. It’s about access to life-saving medicines.”

He noted 1.27 million children need access to HIV/AIDS treatment but only roughly 200,000 are receiving any.

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