Liberals, Tories continue to refuse to start national pharmacare program

It’s easy to assume that a proposal which is both popular and demonstrably effective should be readily implemented as policy. But this week’s vote in Parliament on a national pharmacare program highlights a glaring gap between the wishes and the interests of the public, and the political choices of both the Liberal and Conservative parties.

There has long been broad support for a national pharmacare program among both the general public and a wide range of stakeholders.

Opinion polls have shown upwards of 90 per cent of respondents backing the idea (while also highlighting the large number of Canadians who go without needed medications entirely, or struggle to pay for them in the absence of a coherent system to fund pharmaceutical treatment).

The Council of the Federation — the assembly of Canada’s premiers which has had so much difficulty finding common ground on anything but the most noncontroversial of issues — has supported increased co-operation toward improving the affordability and accessibility of needed medication. And it’s been joined on that front by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Indeed, even some business groups have offered their endorsement of a national pharmacare plan — due largely to the fact that an effective national system would substantially reduce the cost of funding and administering smaller and less-efficient employer-based programs.

This is of course exactly the same logic underlying the system of universal medical care which Canadians so prize and cherish. Indeed, a prescription drug plan has been considered from the beginning as a future stage of the development of our health care system.

And that theory continues to find support in practice, as a new report from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) has confirmed what other studies have long concluded. Even under modest assumptions, Canadians could save billions of dollars annually in drug costs through a national pharmacare system, while millions of people who currently lack access to needed medication would be covered.

Now, several petition campaigns are underway to turn the public’s favourable views of pharmacare into a movement capable of turning ideas into action. So why hasn’t it yet resulted in progress when it comes to prescription drugs — and how and why are both the Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives standing in the way?

The answer can be seen in those parties’ respective responses to NDP MP Don Davies’ motion to start negotiations with the provinces toward a national pharmacare system.

In the Liberals’ case, pharmacare is a casualty of the party’s inclination to do nothing by halves which can be done by quarters (or better yet, put off altogether lest actually delivering on a progressive policy result in the party no longer being able to promise to get around to it in a decade or seven). In fact, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor’s response to the pharmacare motion was to point directly to her mandate letter in which Justin Trudeau instructed her to think smaller and do less.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are offering nothing more than their typical blinkered refusal to look at the “benefit” side of the cost-benefit calculations around pharmacare, even as the independent PBO shows how the public stands to gain from taking action based on the whole picture.

Lest there be any doubt, there’s a long way to go in actually developing and implementing a pharmacare plan. But that’s exactly why it’s a gross failure of leadership for the Liberals and Conservatives to refuse to even start the process, substituting excuses and complacency for any of the hope or responsibility for which they purport to stand. And Canadians who are already fighting health problems will continue to pay the price.

Greg Fingas is a Regina lawyer, blogger and freelance political commentator who has written about provincial and national issues from a progressive NDP perspective since 2005.

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