Take your meds—if you can get them

Pharmacists have been forced to cut pills in half

Mark Blinch / Reuters

With dozens of prescription drugs unavailable and hundreds more on back order, pharmacists in Saskatchewan are scrambling to find alternative medications for patients. “It’s worsening and there seems to be no end in sight,” says Ray Joubert, registrar with the Saskatchewan College of Pharmacists. “We need to solve it before something disastrous happens.”

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While the rest of Canada is suffering a moderate drug shortage, experts say it doesn’t compare to what’s going on in Saskatchewan. For almost a year, pharmacists there have been cutting pills in half, contacting multiple manufacturers and, when necessary, calling doctors to temporarily switch a patient’s medication because the supply of many prescriptions—including tetracycline and certain strengths of vitamin B9—have dried up. It’s especially hard for patients on complicated drug regimens, since alternatives can’t always be found. “Some patients,” says Joubert, “have gone without their meds.”

No one knows exactly what’s causing the shortage. Chris Perentes, co-owner of four drugstores in Regina, says the U.S. government has begun enforcing quality-control regulations more tightly, increasing the time it takes for medications to get to market. This is compounded, says Jeff Poston, executive director of the Canadian Pharmacists Association, by the higher number of exclusive drug contracts being offered. Companies bid on government contracts, and the winner becomes the sole provider of a certain drug. This drives down prices, but also means that only one manufacturer is making a certain drug at any given time.

As for the college, Joubert says its next move is to speak with pharmacists, drug manufacturers and health authorities to find a solution. In the meantime, drugstores will have to keep plugging away. That’s exactly what Perentes is doing. After months of scrambling, he says, most of his patients have resumed their regimens with alternative drugs. “We’re just waiting for stock to come in so we can switch them back,” he says.