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'We're not being heard': Patients with mental illness face barriers accessing medication, report finds

A new study has found that patients living with mental illness are waiting years to get approval for life-altering medications.

The study from the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, titled “System Broken,” finds patients who depend on public drug plans are especially disadvantaged. 

“The stark reality in Canada, revealed by this report, is that access to innovative medications for mental illness is hampered by a complex system that takes far too long and results in inequitable access, or in many cases, no access at all,” the report says.

Al Raimundo told CTV News one of the barriers they’ve had to face when trying to access care for their mental health is the prohibitive cost of medication.

“That’s a really hard place to put somebody, that they have to kind of choose between their necessities and something that’s going to unlock a better life for them,” they said. “It’s really difficult.”

Raimundo's concerns are among many highlighted in the study. Once Health Canada determines if medications are safe and effective, private insurance plans help cover the cost of prescriptions. According to the report, 42 per cent of patients surveyed rely on a public drug plan, a three per cent increase since 2015.

The report also found the average time from Health Canada approval to public reimbursement was just over 2.5 years.

Dr. Diane McIntosh, a psychiatrist, said barriers to care are putting a strain on the health system.

“It’s actually painful as a human being and then as a physician not to be able to offer patients the treatments that I know they would tolerate better because they’re not covered by a provincial formulary, for instance,” she said.

The report also outlines the issues patients face trying to access newly approved drugs. These drugs make their way through another layer of testing from Canada’s Drug and Health Technology Agency, known as CADTH, which determines if patients on public drug plans are eligible to be reimbursed.

Between 2012 and 2022, CADTH gave a “negative assessment” to 54 per cent of mental illness medications, far higher than the 17 per cent of negative assessments given to those not related to mental illness.

“Why is that when my peers across the country and I have been part of many submissions to CADTH saying, ‘We need this medication’ … we’re told no without any explanation?” said McIntosh. “The only explanation that I can understand is we’re not being heard, patients are not being heard and that there is stigma regarding the need for innovative treatments for psychiatric disorders.”

CADTH would not speak with CTV News about the study. However, Health Canada said the government "is committed to safeguarding the Canadian drug supply and ensuring Canadians have access to the drugs they need.”

McIntosh said she hopes the report illustrates the urgency of this issue and that governments act accordingly.

With files from CTV National News’ Kevin Gallagher

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