Is a health plan that includes pharmaceuticals part of a federal plan?

element_healthservicesBy Jay Fallis

March 13th, 2017



My grandfather led a very healthy life. He exercised every day, followed a strict diet, and only ate chocolate ice cream once a year. At the age of 94, doctors were in awe of the fact that he did not take prescription drugs.

His story is certainly unique. For most of us, prescription drugs, are, or will become, essential for treating illness or physical ailments.

However, for many Canadians, prescriptions are difficult to come by. Stories of patients re-using needles and parents having to choose which child to buy medication for have become all too common in this country.

Unnecessary struggles of this nature lead one to ponder why Canada does not have some form of a universal drug plan.

It seems that politicians in Ottawa have begun to question this as well. In recent months the Standing Committee on Health began discussing the possibility of developing some form of a National Pharmacare Program, and began to look at what such a program might entail. To understand the committee’s progress so far and the issue a little further, I spoke with a member of the Health Committee and Oakville MP, John Oliver.

To start, Oliver discussed Canada’s unique situation.

“Canada is one of the few countries that has a comprehensive universal healthcare plan that doesn’t include pharmaceuticals outside of hospital care. In our current plan today you are [treated] in hospital care, but the minute you are discharged you have to pay for those drugs out of your pocket or through a private insurance plan.”

He went on to suggest that this presents a serious problem for many Canadians

“About 10% of Canadians do not have any form of drug coverage and are unable to afford medications. So about 10% of Canadians show up, have a prescription to fill and they cannot fill it because of unaffordability.”

However, Oliver was clear that this problem was not just limited to those who didn’t have drug coverage.

“Many Canadians have insurance through their employment. But, those private coverage plans are becoming increasingly expensive as new drugs emerge… I’ve heard from inside the industry that there is a concern that private companies won’t be able to continue to afford a drug benefit plan for their employees.” He said.

Essentially, it won’t just be unemployed Canadians who will continue to suffer from a non-existent public pharmaceutical plan. Even those who have pharmaceutical coverage plans through their jobs could be forced to pay for expensive medical treatment themselves.

There are, of course, alternatives used around the world in response to such a harsh reality. Among them is the model used in New Zealand, on which the Health Committee recently heard testimony.

“I think in New Zealand there is a $5 fee that you pay regardless of the value of the drug.” Oliver said.
He went on to describe New Zealand’s model in more detail.

“We did hear that one of the potential downsides of a universal pharma care plan for certain drugs was that there can be delays introducing the drug and making it available to the [distributors] because it’s going through an economic benefit evaluation.”

However, Oliver suggested that despite these occasional delays, New Zealanders appreciate the system.

“There are a lot of left and right leaning political parties in New Zealand. So I asked would any party run on a platform to do away with universal pharmacare coverage and the answer we got was “No””.

Even though New Zealand’s pharmaceutical plan does delay the introduction of some drugs to market, the testimony, that Oliver and the rest of the committee heard, made it clear that this was a popular initiative. So much so, that all sides of the political spectrum wouldn’t dare advocate for its elimination.

Our country has so much to gain from implementing a national pharmaceutical plan. It is popular elsewhere, and it guarantees that no one will suffer because of unaffordability or lack of insurance coverage. While our government still has a long way to go in developing such a broad plan, I am reminded by Oliver’s reply as to whether this was a good time to start this discussion:

“Absolutely, I think it’s past due.”

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