B.C. university withdraws from embattled drug insurance program

B.C. university withdraws from embattled drug insurance program

A British Columbia university says it has withdrawn from an insurance cost-savings program at the centre of a past union grievance and an instructor’s ongoing human rights complaint alleging it previously prevented him from accessing “life-changing” medication.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) is withdrawing from Manulife’s optional DrugWatch program following “faculty concerns,” it announced in an April 24 email sent to faculty and shared with CBC News. 

Launched in 2015, DrugWatch analyzes the costs and potential benefits of new medications before deciding to cover them “to help ensure value for money in a dramatically changing drug market,” according to a Manulife report.

“While Manulife has assured the University that no KPU faculty member was denied access to medication after it re-entered DrugWatch, the university has listened to faculty concerns raised through the offices of the Kwantlen Faculty Association (KFA),” wrote the university’s vice-president of human resources Laurie Clancy and Mark Diotte, president of the faculty association.

The university had declined to confirm whether or not it was enrolled in DrugWatch when CBC News first reported on a complaint by Mazen Guirguis, a philosophy instructor and former dean of humanities at KPU, in November.

But in a May 3 statement to CBC News, Jenn Harrington, KPU’s associate vice-president of people relations, confirmed it had first enrolled in 2018 and the withdrawal took effect as of May 1. 

Last year, the KFA had called DrugWatch discriminatory, unfair and “ethically questionable.”

In a 2021 decision, an arbitrator found Douglas College’s enrolment in DrugWatch had violated its collective agreement with instructors, and ordered the institution to opt out immediately. 

The KFA’s grievance now appears to have been withdrawn, according to the statement, but Diotte did not respond to requests for comment from CBC News to confirm.

Manulife declined to comment on KPU’s withdrawal, citing privacy, but said DrugWatch “plays an important role in helping members access the right medication at the right time, while ensuring the long-term sustainability of group benefits plans.”

“Manulife encourages all plan sponsors to make decisions that are best for them and their employees,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC News on May 22.

A small medicine bottle is pictured to a box package and two red plastic syringes.
Risdiplam, sold under the brand name Evrysdi in Canada, costs nearly $1,000 per day. (Evrysdi/evrysdi.com)

‘A year I will never get back’

KPU’s withdrawal from DrugWatch was one of the remedies sought by Guirguis, whose September 2023 complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal claims that DrugWatch prevented him from accessing risdiplam for more than a year and then put the coverage he eventually received in peril.

Guirguis said risdiplam had helped halt deterioration due to Type 3 spinal-muscular atrophy, a severe and progressive neuromuscular disease that causes muscles to weaken.

He alleged that he was unable to apply to get the $1,000-a-day drug covered for more than a year until KPU temporarily withdrew from DrugWatch in 2022.

“That is a year I will never get back, and the consequences will remain with me for the rest of my life,” Guirguis, who was not available for an interview, wrote in an email to CBC News on May 13. 

He claimed DrugWatch put his access to risdiplam in danger again last fall, when he says he could not apply for another year-long prior authorization after KPU had re-enrolled in DrugWatch.

The university declined to confirm whether risdiplam coverage has been impacted by DrugWatch, but new information from KPU appears to support Guirguis’s claim. 

Harrington said in a statement to CBC News that KPU temporarily opted out of DrugWatch between March 2022 and April 2023 to address “a process concern raised by the KFA.” Those dates are within the timeframe that Guirguis claims he was able to access risdiplam. 

A head shot of a man smiling.
Mazen Guirguis, a philosophy instructor and former dean of humanities at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, has claimed the university and two administrators discriminated against him and disrupted his access to a ‘life-changing’ medication. (Submitted by Mazen Guirguis)

Guirguis says his access to the medication has only continued through a compassionate program by Manulife itself, and KPU’s withdrawal means he won’t have to depend on the insurer’s will in the future.

“It means that I can look forward to the stability I once had, that I can now pursue my ambitions without my health and welfare being held hostage to attitudes that have no regard for the dignity and humanity of people,” he wrote to CBC News. 

He says his human rights complaint seeking compensation for the physical and mental toll of the uncertainty has been fast-tracked, with a preliminary hearing set for the summer.

Harrington declined to comment on whether KPU’s withdrawal was connected to Guirguis’s complaint due to the ongoing legal matter and privacy.

A grey sign outside an office lobby listing business suites is pictured.
Guirguis’ human rights complaint is set to be heard for the first time this summer. (Ben Nelms/CBC)