Canada's Manulife rolls back specialty drug policy after Loblaw deal backlash

(Reuters) -Manulife Financial Corp on Monday rolled back a policy and will allow Canadians to fill specialty medication prescriptions at any pharmacy, following backlash after the insurer signed an exclusive arrangement with Loblaw Co.

The insurer's announcement in January that its Specialty Drug Care program would be primarily delivered through Loblaw's Shoppers Drug Mart had sparked competition concerns within the pharmacy sector and complaints from consumers on social media.

"We have listened to and are addressing the concerns we have heard over the past week," Manulife Canada's CEO, Naveed Irshad, said, adding that the change impacts a small number of its members.

Manulife said it is implementing the change "swiftly."

Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne had said the government was reviewing the arrangement, voicing concerns about the lack of competition and fewer choices for consumers.

Canada's competition watchdog has urged stricter merger review rules and antitrust reform as a declining number of options has left Canadians with fewer and pricier choices in everything from telecoms to banking after decades of industry consolidation.

"This is a step in the right direction," Champagne said on Monday following the announcement.

Conditions treated with specialty medicines are complex, chronic or life-threatening, such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, pulmonary arterial hypertension, osteoporosis and hepatitis C.

Specialty drugs represent a small percentage of total drug claims, but make up almost a third of total spending on medications in Canada, according to an Express Scripts 2023 trend report.

Loblaw said Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies would continue to support patients.

(Reporting by Manya Saini in Bengaluru and Nivedita Balu in Toronto; Additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli, Bill Berkrot and Leslie Adler)