FREDERICTON (GNB) – The provincial government is improving the sustainability of its public drug plans by expanding the use of biosimilars.

Biosimilars are highly similar versions of originator biologic drugs that are produced once the patent for the originator expires. Although there are no meaningful differences between biosimilars and the originator, biosimilars cost significantly less.

“New Brunswick has been a leader in providing residents with coverage for new drugs in a timely manner. Increasing the use of biosimilars is expected to save over $10 million once fully implemented and the savings will increase as more biosimilars become available,” said Health Minister Dorothy Shephard. “Biosimilars have been proven to work just as safely and effectively as biologic drugs. Savings from increasing their utilization will be reinvested to support coverage of new therapies and improve patient access to more medications.”

Biologic drugs make up some of the province’s largest drug expenditures, and their costs are growing. In 2019-20, government spending on biologic drugs grew by 19 per cent to $63.8 million. In the same year, biologic drugs accounted for 29.4 per cent of drug costs but only represented 1.5 per cent of the total number of prescriptions paid.

This Biosimilars Initiative follows similar policies implemented by British Columbia and Alberta over the past two years, where tens of thousands of patients in each province were safely switched from an originator biologic drug to a biosimilar. Switching to biosimilars has also been conducted extensively in Europe, where countries have had over 15 years of experience with biosimilars.

“The government’s initiative to increase the use of biosimilars makes sense, as the resulting savings have been guaranteed to stay in the public drug plans to fund new drugs,” said Dr. Mark MacMillan, gastroenterologist at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital and assistant clinical professor at Dalhousie University and Memorial University. “Biosimilars are just as safe and effective as the originator versions, as demonstrated by the experiences in British Columbia, Alberta and Europe.”

In consultation with their physicians, about 3,000 beneficiaries of the province’s drug plans who are living with diseases such as inflammatory arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes and psoriasis will have until Nov. 30 to switch from an originator biologic to the biosimilar version. After that time, the plans will no longer provide coverage for the originator biologic drug. Exceptional coverage may be requested for patients whose physicians determine they are medically unable to switch to a biosimilar.

The Department of Health consulted with a number of stakeholders on the switch to biosimilars and received support from prescribers and patient groups such as Arthritis Consumer Experts, Arthritis Research Canada, Arthritis Society and the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation.

“The transition to a biosimilar can take place safely under the right conditions, improve access to treatment while also providing savings that can be reinvested into expanded healthcare,” said Jone Mitchell, executive director of the Atlantic Region Arthritis Society. “The Arthritis Society’s priority is to ensure that people living with arthritis have access to the life-changing treatments and information they need. We are supportive of the New Brunswick government’s biosimilars initiative announced today and look forward to working with them to ensure that this transition is seamless for patients and puts their needs and experiences front and centre.”

The province’s plans provide subsidized drug coverage for about 135,000 people. In 2019-20, the province invested about $220 million in these drug plans.

More information on the Biosimilars Initiative is available online.