Guest post by Trevor Zimmerman
Last spring, Wildrose Health Critic Drew Barnes stood up in the Alberta Legislature and tried to rap Health Minister Sarah Hoffman’s knuckles for her statement that “paying for essential life-saving blood, plasma, those types of things, makes me quite nervous, actually.”
Mr. Barnes pointed to the unfortunate fact Albertans and other Canadians rely on paid plasma collection now — from the United States — because Canada only currently collects about 30 per cent of its plasma needs voluntarily.
Accusing Ms. Hoffman of “hypocrisy” and of wanting to “get in the way” of improvements to the system for ideological reasons, Mr. Barnes claimed “paid plasma is every bit as safe” as blood products donated by volunteers, and that paying for blood is a “safe, common, widely endorsed and crucially essential practice.”
The Wildrose critic isn’t wrong about the percentage of plasma that comes from the Unites States — but he’s certainly ignoring the recommendations of the Krever Inquiry, which looked into the tainted-blood scandal of the 1980s in which patients received blood contaminated with HIV and Hepatitis C. “Donors of blood and plasma should not be paid for their donations, except in rare circumstances,” the report of Mr. Justice Horace Krever’s Royal Commission into the Blood System in Canada recommended in 1997.
The Krever Inquiry‘s advice was mirrored by more recent recommendations from the World Health Organization that countries move toward 100-per-cent voluntary plasma collection by 2020. The same recommendations are already in place for blood used for transfusions, which now have a sustainable, 100-per-cent voluntary source in Canada.
The Wildrose push seems to be in response to intensive lobbying by Canadian Plasma Resources, a Saskatoon-based for-profit company.
Canadian Plasma Resources is now buying plasma from donors in Saskatoon for $25 a pop — paid with a gift card or a charitable donation to get around rules prohibiting cash payments for blood products. The company became controversial in Ontario in 2014 after its plans to profit highly off of plasma collection there became known.
Thanks to advocacy of people like Kat Lanteigne, co-founder of BloodWatch.org, politicians of every stripe in Ontario saw the light. A bill banning the practice was passed in the Ontario Legislature in 2014 with all-party support. If the right-wing Ontario PCs can get behind banning cash-for-plasma schemes, you have to wonder what’s going on at Wildrose HQ!
What we do know is that paid plasma is a billion-dollar industry. Some call plasma “liquid gold.” Canadian Plasma Resources is lobbying aggressively in all provinces to open its profitable clinics. While we’d hope our official Opposition would be more attentive to the World Health Organization and a Canadian Royal Commission than a for-profit corporate lobby, it isn’t hard to imagine why they came to their conclusions.
It’s worth noting that Canadian Blood Services itself has work to do. Amazingly, CBS does not operate a single plasma donation clinic in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba or any of the territories. They’ve left a wide-open hole with no clinic in the entire city of Toronto! So that’s about one-third of the Canadian population that does not have convenient access to a voluntary donation clinic — which would account for at least some of the low donation levels we see in Canada.
Canadian Blood Services has also been criticized for its recent labour dispute with employees, and for its questionable consultations with Toyota Motor Corp. about adopting the Japanese automaker’s manufacturing processes. Safe-blood advocates and CBS staff have raised concerns that a manufacturing business model may not be an ideal approach for a health care public service organization.
Many LGBTQ advocates are also rightly upset with Canadian Blood Services over their discriminatory policies prohibiting men who have sex with other men from donating, despite promises from the Trudeau Liberals to lift the ban, which the government rightly called “unscientific.” The situation was made worse with new policies from CBS that target and restrict donations from trans women.
To the organization’s credit, and thanks to pressure from health advocates and labour organizations, Canadian Blood Services recognizes the need for improvement in at least some important areas. CBS officials recently announced plans to increase Canadian voluntary donation to 50 per cent of our supply, and made it clear they don’t intend to buy plasma from Canadian Plasma Resources. This means Canadian Plasma Resources will be an export-only business.
This should be an open and shut case. Not only is paid collection against recommendations of bodies like the WHO and the Krever Inquiry, but we won’t even benefit as Canadians from any of the blood broker export clinics operating here.
You’d think a simple concept of Canadian blood and blood products benefiting Canadians would unite all parties in Alberta, as it did in Ontario.
Instead of competing with an aggressive private market, Alberta should be following the lead of Ontario and Quebec’s legislative ban. The NDP Government has yet to commit to this important step, but surely it can be persuaded.
Alberta’s Friends of Medicare has partnered with BloodWatch.org in a tour of Alberta, with stops in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer throughout this week. Details are available on BloodWatch.org. Events are free to the public.
Trevor Zimmerman is Alberta Friends of Medicare’s communications officer, based in Edmonton.
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Photo: Ray Domeij.