Canada needs a universal pharmacare system

MP Richard Cannings writes in From the Hill

By Richard Cannings, MP

Universal pharmacare is a hot topic on Parliament Hill these days. The concept is simple—a single program that would ensure that all Canadians had free access to prescription drugs. Canada is the only country in the world with universal health care that doesn’t include the cost of drugs in its coverage.

And that doesn’t make sense—if I cut my foot I can go to my doctor and get stitched up for free, but then have to pay for the necessary antibiotics. And if I can’t afford to buy those antibiotics and get a serious infection, I can go to the emergency room at the hospital and get free antibiotic treatment. Needless to say, that extra hospital visit would cost a hundred times the cost of the missed prescription.

When Canada launched its universal health care system about 50 years ago, the cost of prescription drugs was meant to be included in the plan. For whatever reason that didn’t happen, but periodically the topic comes up on the radar of provincial and federal governments.

On Sept. 28, the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report that detailed the costs and benefits of a universal pharmacare system. The basic message that comes out of the report is that Canada would save at least $4 billion per year if we had a pharmacare system. And that figure is quite conservative—the savings could easily be over $11 billion a year.

Much of those savings come from the purchasing power of a single buyer system. If all drugs in Canada were bought through a central pharmacare office we could bargain much better prices. We pay ten times as much as New Zealanders do for one of the most common statin medications, all because the Kiwis use the power of their pharmacare purchasing system to get better deals.

More savings come from relieving pressure on our health care system due to skipped prescriptions. About six per cent of hospital admissions in Canada result from people who don’t take medications as directed, and a lot of that is because people can’t afford to buy the drugs. About 10 percent of Canadians can’t afford to pay for their prescribed medication.

Many Canadians have their prescription drugs paid for by extended health benefits through their employer. The costs of these premiums are borne by businesses across the country, and can be a significant part of the compensation packages businesses pay their employees.

Last Thursday the House of Commons debated an NDP motion asking for talks between the federal and provincial governments to begin the process of bringing universal pharmacare to Canada. The Liberals said that the “time was not right” for such a motion, claiming that we needed to know details such as which drugs would be covered and how the costs would be shared. But these are precisely the details that would be discussed at the meeting.

The time has come for action on this issue. We’ve spent 50 years losing billions of dollars a year on an inefficient system when we could have been healthier and wealthier through universal pharmacare.