In Canada, if you cut your finger, you go to a doctor and get treated with stitches. When it’s done, you walk out and never see a bill.
But if you walk into a doctor’s office and get diagnosed with an ailment that requires prescription medication, you’re at the mercy of your ability to pay.
Tommy Douglas, the father of medicare, never intended to create such an incongruous gap in Canadian health care coverage. Prescription drugs and other services were always meant to be integrated into a system of comprehensive public coverage, along with hospitals and physician services.
Nevertheless, despite repeated studies, proposals, and pledges, Canada remains the only major country that offers universal health care without a national drug plan.
This is perplexing from both a health and fiscal perspective.
Evidence has been clear for decades that universal pharmacare would expand coverage and improve outcomes, while reducing costs for Canadians. Estimated savings from universal drug coverage for Canadians is measured in the billions, and every health practitioner knows well the negative health impacts on patients who skip medicine because of cost.
In public life, it’s rare to find such an obvious and effective policy innovation staring us in the face. But successive federal governments have failed to muster the political will to advance this file.
That failure means that 20 percent of Canadians—some 7.5 million people—don’t get the medicine they need, when they need it. One in five Canadians report that either they or a family member neglects to fill prescriptions due to cost. And Canadians pay among the highest prescription drug prices in the industrialized world, second only to the United States.
It’s time we addressed this serious deficiency.
A recent report authored by six of Canada’s leading health policy experts found that the full implementation of universal pharmacare by 2020 is “both desirable and feasible”.
The study, Pharmacare 2020—The Future of Drug Coverage in Canada, estimates that universal pharmacare would result in public and private savings of between $4 billion and $11 billion per year under reasonable assumptions. As a first step, we could immediately cover the World Health Organization’s essential medicines list of 120 common drugs and save nearly $4.3 billion per year right away. This list would cover 44 percent of the prescriptions filled in Canada and begin the shift towards a comprehensive national formulary.
Universal drug coverage would mean eliminating out-of-pocket costs for families and significant savings for employers. It would also mean long-term savings for our public health care system when those who currently can’t afford to fill prescriptions achieve improved health outcomes.
Presently, Canada has the second-highest rate of skipped prescriptions due to cost among comparable countries. According to a recent study, one in 12 Canadians aged 55 and older skipped prescriptions due to cost in 2014.
It also found that those without insurance were twice as likely to skip prescriptions due to cost and low-income Canadians were three times more likely to report financial barriers to accessing essential medications.
Despite the absence of federal leadership on pharmacare, public opinion research has consistently found a strong consensus among Canadians on the need to move toward universal drug coverage. A recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that more than 90 percent of Canadians support the concept of universal pharmacare.
It’s time their elected representatives got on board.
Canada’s New Democrats are leading the way—as we did on Medicare.
We were the only party to include universal pharmacare in our platform in the last election.
That’s why the very first motion I moved at the standing committee on health was to study how best to establish universal pharmacare for all Canadians.
And that’s why we asked the parliamentary budget officer to take the unprecedented step of preparing a full costing analysis for a single-payer, universal drug plan.
Establishing universal hospital and physician care took leadership.
It’s time for leadership from all levels of government to further Tommy’s dream and ensure that every Canadian has access to the health care they need, when they need it.
Don Davies is the NDP’s health critic and member of Parliament for Vancouver Kingsway.
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