It’s kind of difficult to explain why I was sitting in the House of Assembly at midnight Tuesday night – it’s sort of complicated.
I guess it comes down to equal parts legitimate public policy debate and completely foolish legislative weirdness.
(Ok, that actually only explains why the 40-odd MHAs were there Tuesday; to explain why I was there, well, you have to get into my borderline pathological obsession with politics. I won’t try to tackle that in this blog though.)
What’s important to know is that for many, many hours on Tuesday, our elected leaders debated a relatively meaningless amendment to a relatively important amendment to the Pharmaceutical Services Act.
Let’s get that pesky legitimate public policy out of the way first.
I’ll try to keep this summary brief, but bear in mind that this week I spent the better part of 12 hours listening to debate on this; at this point, "War and Peace" is looking brief to me.
The government wants to amend the legislation so they can change some regulations and mandate that all generic drugs in the province cost 35 per cent of their branded equivalents. Currently, generics average around 60 per cent of their branded counterparts.
This is forecast to save somewhere around $30 million for the government, since they pay a lot of money for prescription drugs through the NL Prescription Drug Plan.
The opposition parties worry that this could have unintended consequences which will hurt seniors and independently owned pharmacies, especially in rural parts of the province.
The amendment they’re passing doesn’t actually do any of this, but it opens up a way that the government can write new regulations to make it happen.
Remember this bit for later; it was kind of central to the ensuing legislative brouhaha.
OK, so those are the policy basics. (If you want some more information, I’ve tried to explain the nitty gritty of it in a bit more detail at the end. If you’ve got even more questions, send me an e-mail. If you’re willing to buy me a coffee we can sit down at Tim Hortons and talk this all out in painful detail. It’ll take an hour or two.)
On to the legislative weirdness!
Now, from my vantage point it looks like the government flubbed the roll-out of this legislation a little bit.
They tabled the legislation last Wednesday, but then they refused to talk about it until second reading in the House, which happened on Monday.
When the government formally rolled things out on Monday, they made it clear that this legislation just sort of opens the door so that the government can write regulations that will get the ball rolling.
Regulations aren’t written until after the bill gets passed, but before it’s formally “proclaimed” into law. This process generally takes months or even years.
On Monday, though, Sullivan set herself a more ambitious objective. She said the law would go into force in less than a week, on Sunday April 1.
What’s more, the government was (and as far as I know, still is) in negotiations with the province’s pharmacists as to how to write those regulations.
So basically, the ball gets rolling in the House Monday afternoon, and the Liberals said, “WOAH! You’re going to have to give us some details on what you’re going to write in those regulations before we vote for this.”
The government responded, “Relax. It’s cool. We’re going to look out for seniors and independent pharmacies.”
They went back and forth like this for two days, well into the night.
By Tuesday evening, they were still on second reading of the bill, and they absolutely had to get the bill passed. Basically, if they didn’t finish second reading Tuesday, they wouldn’t be able to pass the bill by the end of the week, which would throw a wrench into Sullivan’s plans to have the thing come into force on Sunday.
The thing is, the PCs have a majority in the House, but if the Liberals or the NDP want to slow things down, they definitely can.
On second reading of the bill, for example, every MHA gets 20 minutes to speak if they want it.
Members can also propose amendments to the bill. Then, everyone gets 20 minutes to talk about the amendment.
Even if the government doesn’t do any talking, there are 11 opposition MHAs. That’s more than three hours worth of talking.
Then during the committee stage of the bill (what’s called “Committee of the Whole,” where the whole House operates as one big committee) everyone gets 10 minutes to speak, and opposition MHAs can talk more than once.
A few years back, I hear, a couple Liberal MHAs went back and forth all through the night, debating a bill until mid-morning the next day.
So Tuesday afternoon, the Liberals proposed an amendment — what’s called a hoist amendment — and started talking, and they kept talking well into the evening.
(The NDP was sort of along for the ride in all of this. It was really a showdown between the PCs and the Liberals. In the end, the brave New Democrats actually voted in favour of the bill. I was told by MHA Dale Kirby that there were some things they were uncomfortable with, but on balance they thought it was a good bit of legislation to pass.)
I get the sense that in the course of debate the Liberals wanted to extract some promises from the government about what they were going to write in those pesky regulations once the bill was passed. When they weren’t satisfied with the answers, they just kept talking.
During the evening’s debate, everyone’s favourite phrase was “fear mongering.”
The government members said the opposition was just fear mongering, and trust us, we’re going to set this up in a way that no one gets hurt. The Liberals said they weren’t fear mongering, and until you answer some of our questions, we don’t trust you to do anything right. Everyone said fear mongering. Fear mongering.
Then around 10:30 p.m. something weird happened. All the opposition members had exhausted their chance to speak to the amendment but government just kept talking.
There was Corner Brook MHA Vaughn Granter. Then there was Environment Minister Terry French, who said he hadn’t planned on talking about this bill at all, but he couldn’t help himself — he talked for almost all of his full 20 minutes. Next up Innovation Minister Keith Hutchings weighed in.
Let’s be clear: the government was drawing things out and delaying the passage of their own bill, just to mess with the Liberals.
The message from the government, from my vantage point was: “If you want to go all night, that’s fine with us. There are more of us over here. If it’s a competition for who can talk the most, we’re going to win it.”
Some time around 11 p.m. the three government House Leaders – PC Jerome Kennedy, Liberal Yvonne Jones and NDP Lorraine Michael – all went out into the hall to have a little chat.
When they came back in, Hutchings was just wrapping up his 20 minutes, and Tourism Minister Derrick Dalley got up to speak.
Kennedy looked at him, held up a couple fingers and said, “Two minutes.”
I’m not sure exactly who “won” or what the deal was, but out in the hall the three of them came to some sort of an agreement. Apparently no one — except maybe one pitiful legislative reporter up in the press gallery — wanted to stay all night.
There are a lot of things about all of this I find pretty interesting.
The public policy issues are thorny and intriguing. The legislative and procedural games they play are fun to follow.
But what fascinates me the most about all of this is the why of it all.
In the legislature, the parties play games and they strategize. Some of it is meant for public consumption — like the theatrics in question period — and some of it never leaves the room.
I can tell you that more than once when I poked my head out into the press gallery Tuesday night, Premier Kathy Dunderdale looked up and laughed at seeing me still there.
Nobody expected this to get covered in any real way.
They weren’t there for show; they were just there because they were stubborn.
Tuesday night, it was just around 40 grown-ups arguing in a room, and nobody wanted to lose.
(Remember those the nitty gritty details of the issue I promised you? Here they are.)
Basically, the provincial government wants to mandate that all generic drugs will be sold at 35 per cent of their branded counterparts.
By knocking the cost of generics down to 35 per cent of brand price, the government is mostly putting the squeeze on generic drug manufacturers — and it seems no one is losing any sleep over taking a chunk out of their profit margins.
But those drug companies pay “professional allowances” to drugstores in exchange for stocking their drugs — there are lots of companies making generic drugs, and competition is fierce.
Pharmacies, especially the small independent ones, worry that if the generic manufacturers are in a pinch, they’ll cut the professional allowances. Those pharmacy owners say if they lose the professional allowances, it could be enough to force them to close up shop.
So if the government wants to save the pharmacies – and they say they want to – they can either pay money directly to pharmacies or they can tweak the regulations some more to try to keep ‘em afloat.
The government could increase the regulated flat-rate dispensing fee that pharmacists get paid every time they fill a prescription.
The problem with this is that an awful lot of senior citizens only pay the dispensing fee, because they actual cost of their drugs is covered by a drug plan. If the government ups the dispensing fee, it could lead to them paying more for drugs.
Health Minister has been pretty adamant that won’t happen though.
“Seniors will not pay more.” Period. Full stop. Anyone who suggests otherwise is just fear mongering and should be ashamed of themselves.
In a year or two, we’ll see how it all pans out.