Doctors and patients anxious after pharma giant Apotex quits New Zealand

A patient advocate group says a pharmaceutical giant's decision to pull out of the New Zealand market has shocked Kiwi doctors, leaving patients are anxious about the risks of changing medications.

Apotex will pull its 41 medications from New Zealand at the end of 2021, the company announced last week, forcing Pharmac to search for new suppliers.

The decision is expected to affect more than 1 million Kiwis who suffer from a range of injuries and illnesses, including hypertension, epilepsy and bipolar disorder.

Patient Voice Aotearoa chair Malcolm Mulholland said they were not forwarned, although Pharmac was advised of the move in June 2019.

"When the news story broke by Newshub on Friday last week, patients had no idea this was going to happen," he told The AM Show on Monday. "I spoke to local pharmacists, local doctors and none of them had any idea. It really did send shockwaves amongst the community."

Apotex was believed to be downsizing its business, moving out of New Zealand to concentrate on the North American market, but there has been confusion on its Australian operations.

Mulholland said they are trying to understand the decision- "that's the $370 million question" - but he understands Pharmac has found replacements for the "vast majority" of the drugs affected.

He says patients want more transparency around what the drug substitutes will be, as their lives may be at risk.

Previous drug switches have made headlines, in 2018 patients taking an antidepressant drug said they were left struggling with everything from headaches to serious depression when Pharmac switched from brand-name Effexor to a cheaper version called Enlafax XR. 

The Chief Coroner is also currently investigating seven deaths after patients were changed to the generic epilepsy medication Logem.

Mulholland says they want a royal commission of inquiry into the deaths.

"Patients' lives are being put at risk, patients have lost their lives and people want to know why."

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said he is aware the Chief Coroner is looking into the incident but doesn't think the same problems will occur when Apotex leaves New Zealand.

"The advice that I've had is the risk from this round of medications which are affected here is low but of course Pharmac and medical professionals involved need to make judgements to ensure people's health is protected," he told The AM Show.

"[Pharmac] has experienced these things before, there are changes in pharmaceutical suppliers. It's a very effective model that we have with Pharmac and I think they will handle this appropriately."

He says ultimately the decision to leave New Zealand's market was Apotex's commercial decision and it's now up to Pharmac to ensure "nobody loses their supply of the drugs that they need".

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