Affordable pharmacare the goal of study launched in federal budget
A new advisory panel will be tasked with examining access to pharmacare as Canadians continue to pay some of the highest prices for prescription drugs in advanced countries.
Led by former Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins, the panel will weigh a potential national pharmacare plan while studying the patchwork of systems currently at work throughout provinces and territories. The panel will also examine international models in an attempt to foster better access to prescriptions across a wider population.
The issue of drug pricing has long been controversial. Any move to change how the country regulates drug pricing has been greeted with enthusiastic support from those advocating for cheaper drugs, and warnings from the drug manufacturing industry that cutting costs too deeply could impact research and development, and future access. That debate heightened last year as Health Canada flagged it was looking at changes.
“It’s not acceptable that a significant subset of the population does not have access to pharmaceutical products,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said following the release of the federal budget Tuesday. “Our goal is to do this in a way that gets at that gap.”
At least one in 10 Canadians cannot afford the prescription drugs they need and those who can pay face some of the highest costs among OECD nations. Canadians spent more than $30 billion in 2016 to fill over 600 million prescriptions, according to the Canadian Pharmacists Association. And nearly one million Canadians each year give up food and heat in order to pay for medicine.
Provinces and territories currently have full discretion to distribute health care funding through the Canada Health Transfer program. This year the amount divvied up among the provinces will rise to $38.6 billion. Among countries with universal public health care, Canada is the only one whose plan does not include prescription drug coverage.
No timelines were provided on when the panel — called the Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare — will report on its findings.
“We don’t have an answer on exactly when,” Morneau said, adding that Hoskins had only taken up his position a day before.
The announcement of a new panel to study pharmacare could also help the government to kneecap the NDP ahead of the 2019 election. New Democrats have long been calling for a national pharmacare plan, and seem poised to make pharmacare a central part of their platform.
But speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill Tuesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh rejected the idea that the Liberals are maneuvering to the left to steal NDP votes.
“What the government’s proposing is not a plan,” he said. “This is a fantasy. We don’t see even a single dollar of investment in a plan to implement pharmacare. This government is just announcing a study and a study that has no funding behind it. That’s completely unacceptable.”
The challenge of making prescription drugs affordable and available to all Canadians has proven difficult. Canada is the third highest per capita spender on medicines among OECD nations, but nearly 3.5 million Canadians lack even basic drug coverage.
The Canadian Centre for policy Alternatives has urged the government to introduce a national pharmacare program with a single payer to negotiate prices.
The government has proposed changes to the Patented Medicines Regulations – amendments it expects to lower drug prices by $12.6 billion over 10 years.
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