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AIDS drug bill passes Commons

Will an election call kill it before it clears the Senate?

Rachel Kiddell-Monroe of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines has been fighting for CAMR reform for more than seven years. She's seen here with Richard Elliott, ED of Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. Credit: Dale Smith

The NDP bill to make generic AIDS drugs more affordable in the developing world passed third reading in the House of Commons on March 9, with a strong level of support from all parties. Bill C-393, which amends Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR), now heads to the Senate.

Three of the four votes on the bill passed on division, meaning that support for the legislation was so strong, standing votes were not necessary. Several Conservative MPs voted in favour of the bill, while two Liberals – Keith Martin and Bernard Patry – voted against. Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau, who has opposed the bill’s one-licence solution, was absent.

“I’m just absolutely elated and I’m delighted, but now it’s about the Senate,” says NDP MP Paul Dewar, the bill’s sponsor.

Both Dewar and Richard Elliott, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, say they were surprised by the wide margin of victory.

“It went right down to the wire,” Dewar says. “Just an hour before the vote, there were people coming in saying, Yes, we’re with you. But in the end, I thought we might get by with 10, 15 votes. I was blown away. I didn’t expect it to be 60. It was a wonderful surprise.”

“We did think it was going to be much closer than it turned out to be, so that’s enormously gratifying,” Elliott says. “That’s a testament to the hard work that so many Canadians have done to really put this issue on the agenda with MPs and to show that Canadians care about this.”

MPs cited lobbying efforts from groups like the Grandmothers to Grandmothers for the wide margin.

“A number of those who are representing the Grandmothers and a lot of constituents who have met with me personally have asked me to support the bill,” says independent MP Helena Guergis. “I understand what they’re trying to accomplish. I think this situation and this issue has been on the table for discussion for some time now, and we need to have some kind of movement of resolution, so I supported my constituents’ wishes.”

Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs will sponsor the bill as it moves through the Senate. Carstairs worked previously on a similar bill to amend CAMR, but it died on the Order Paper when the Conservatives prorogued Parliament in 2009.

With an election potentially looming, there is a chance that C-393 could die, too. Elliott says the bill could pass through Senate quickly if the will is there. Liberal senators have expressed a desire to pass the bill, which puts the onus on Conservative senators.

“Let’s keep in mind that when CAMR was created the first time, it came from the House with unanimous support, and it came to the Senate and passed with unanimous support within approximately a week,” says Elliott. “This is doable.”

And if the bill does become a casualty of a election call?

“I don’t think it would stop us,” Elliott says. “There is so much support for doing what it takes to make this thing work, to get medicines to patients. If it were to die on the Order Paper, it’ll be back. We already know that there is a commitment to bring it back if that should happen.”