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Purdue Pharmaceuticals is replacing OxyContin with OxyNEO, a pill that’s almost identical to its predecessor, but which is billed as harder to crush and, therefore, more difficult for hard-core addicts to snort or inject.

Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail/michelle siu The Globe and Mail

British Columbia is clamping down on the addictive painkillers it pays for. Starting next week, the province won't cover the drug replacing OxyContin except in "exceptional" circumstances.

The announcement Wednesday makes B.C. the seventh province to tackle Canada's growing prescription-opioid addiction by limiting public coverage for one of the most popular painkillers in the country.

Ontario, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have also said they'll put regulations around when they'll pay for Purdue's long-acting oxycodone. Alberta has said it isn't planning any changes.

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Purdue Pharmaceuticals is replacing OxyContin with OxyNEO, a pill that's almost identical to its predecessor, but which is billed as harder to crush and, therefore, more difficult for hard-core addicts to snort or inject.

But if the switch was meant to alleviate public-health fears surrounding the painkiller, it isn't having the desired effect: Provinces are taking the change as an opportunity to rethink the way they cover highly addictive drugs.

"OxyContin has been identified as a product targeted by those with opioid addiction," B.C.'s Health Ministry said in a statement. "While the OxyNEO tablet is designed to be more difficult to crush, both products can be addictive and subject to abuse."

Patients in B.C. who now have approval to use OxyContin will continue to have access to OxyNEO for as long as they qualify; palliative-care patients will also get continued coverage.

B.C. was one of the first provinces to establish a network to track prescriptions in real time. This allows doctors and pharmacists to figure out who's getting prescriptions from whom, to cut down on potential for "double-doctoring," when a patient could seek painkillers from several doctors.

Purdue declined to comment on the funding decisions until earlier this week, when it released a statement saying provinces' restrictions are "surprising."

"OxyNEO is the first of such [less-crushable]products on the market and paradoxically it now faces significant restrictions for new patients in most provinces," the statement read. "We are deeply concerned that decisions to limit access to OxyNEO will compromise optimal patient care."

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But these new rules will only apply to anyone covered by a public drug plan. About 55 per cent of the money spent on prescription drugs in Canada comes from private insurance companies, or patients' out-of-pocket expenses. Some addiction experts fear the new rules won't go far enough in curbing opioid addictions.

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