Ontario plans to lift ban on paying blood donors
Last fall, Ontario began to consider whether lifting a ban on paying blood donors could create new business opportunities in the province, according to documents obtained under access-to-information law, though the government now says it is not contemplating any changes to plasma collection.
The issue has come up for renewed debate after Canadian Blood Services (CBS) announced in September that it had reached an agreement with Grifols, a Spanish pharmaceutical company, to share responsibility for collecting blood plasma, which is a protein-rich fluid found in blood used for transfusions and to make life-saving medicine. Grifols pays its donors, while CBS does not. And also, it faced a decrease in collections.
The blood-collection agency said that it is in “ongoing discussion with governments and the commercial plasma industry” on how to more than double domestic plasma collection to 50 per cent of supply.
The number of people who donate blood regularly dropped to 31,000 during the pandemic, leaving the organization with its smallest donor base in a decade, it said.
The agency has opened five new plasma donor centres in the last few years, with six more planned by 2024 in an effort to draw 25 per cent of its supply from Canadian donors.
After that announcement, Ontario’s cabinet began to consider a new policy for blood plasma, according to emails between political staff that were obtained by advocacy group BloodWatch.
Liam Stormonth, a senior policy adviser to cabinet on health and long-term care issues, wrote in a Sept. 21 e-mail to colleagues that they should look into what happened in Alberta after that province repealed its ban on paying for blood donations in 2020. He also wrote that they needed “more details on European models – in particular the fully commercialized and mixed models. When they commercialized, what were the impacts on supply, safety, etc.?”
Most countries ban paying for blood, but it is legal in Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Most of the worldwide supply of plasma comes from paid donors in the United States.
The European Blood Alliance, an association of not-for-profit blood authorities, has argued that public systems are more resilient because they are built on patient needs and are less affected by economic cycles.
Monica Da Re, a policy adviser in Premier Doug Ford’s office, responded on Sept. 22 that the issue needed to be examined from both a health and an economic lens.
“I think also getting MEDJCT to weigh in more on potential economic development opportunities would be useful,” Ms. Da Re wrote, referring to the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade. “I just want to make sure both ministries are working together.”
When asked a list of questions on Tuesday about the e-mails, the Ontario government would only deny anything was under consideration.
“Our government is not considering any changes to plasma collection,” Hannah Jensen, spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones, told The Globe and Mail.
Matthew Hotchko, an analyst of the global plasma industry and president of the Marketing Research Bureau, said the sector has been lobbying to have paid collection legalized in Ontario and would welcome a repeal of the ban. From an industry perspective, the economic benefits would be to create jobs at collection centres and generate some income for donors.
Lobbying records show Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, which represents the industry, registered four different lobbyists to press politicians on the issue in 2022.
NDP health critic France Gélinas said she is concerned that private companies will prioritize profit over care.
“There’s a lot of people that are interested in health care because you can make a ton of money off the backs of sick people,” Ms. Gélinas said.
Kat Lanteigne, executive director of BloodWatch, said the safety and supply of the voluntary collection system could be threatened if the ban is repealed.
“To learn that high-level officials are prioritizing economic gain for blood brokers instead of safeguarding our voluntary public blood system is a startling revelation,” she said.
Ontario’s Voluntary Blood Donations Act contains an exemption for CBS to pay donors if it needs to, but it has not yet been tested whether that loophole would also be valid for a private company working on behalf of CBS, such as Grifols.
Grifols told The Globe in September that it had the assurances of CBS that it would be allowed to operate across the country under the existing law.
“It is Grifols’ understanding that Canadian Blood Services will continue its conversations with the provincial governments, including Ontario and British Columbia, regarding locations,” said Mary Hughes, vice-president of biopharma sales and commercial operations for Grifols Canada, in a statement.
Ontario is one of three provinces, along with B.C. and Quebec, that bans compensation for donors of blood products. The Voluntary Blood Donations Act passed unanimously in the Ontario legislature in 2014.
This article was reported by CityNews and the Globe and Mail.