Quebec’s universal prescription drug program offers valuable lessons

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Yanick LabrieAs the Oct. 21 election looms, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems poised to make pharmacare a central issue of the campaign.

In June, the Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare, led by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, tabled a report proposing a single-payer government-run universal drug plan in Canada.

In response, Trudeau took to Twitter, saying his government “is committed to national pharmacare.”

And yet, despite all the headlines, few commentators have referred to the system that already exists in Quebec.

Unlike the Hoskins plan that prescribes a government solution, Quebec’s universal coverage for pharmaceuticals relies on a mixed public-private system.

The Quebec general drug insurance program was established in 1997 with the objective of ensuring all Quebecers have “reasonable and fair access to the medication required by their state of health.”

The public plan provides a minimum level of coverage for the cost of pharmaceutical services and medications for people 65 years of age or older, and social assistance recipients. It also provides insurance coverage to individuals who are ineligible for a private group insurance plan with an employer.

All people eligible for coverage – either as a participant or dependent – under an eligible private group insurance plan are mandated to join it. The coverage of a private group plan must be at least equivalent to the public plan and may be expanded to include drugs that aren’t part of it.

In reality, most private insurance plans choose to provide more generous coverage to their members than the minimum standard set by the public plan.

Overall, while not perfect, the program provides greater access to prescription drugs than other provincial plans. As of June 2018, 25.6 per cent (on average) of all medicines approved by Health Canada between 2008 and 2017 were on the drug formularies (essentially the lists of available drugs) of all other provincial public plans. In Quebec, that number is 33.4 per cent.

Public coverage in Quebec is not only more generous, but drug coverage approval is more timely than anywhere else in the country.

And patients generally have access to a wider range of prescription drugs in Quebec due to the provincial government’s less restrictive formulary compared to other provinces. Quebec’s public plan covers more than 8,000 prescription drug products, the most extensive in the country. That compares to 4,400 on the Ontario Drug Benefit list, for example.

Researchers who have studied the program note that access to prescriptions drugs in Quebec has significantly improved. Only a tiny fraction of households in Quebec (0.2 per cent) must take on catastrophic pharmaceutical expenses over the course of a year. And among provinces, Quebec has the lowest percentage of patients (3.7 per cent in 2016, the latest year of comparable data) who say they don’t fill prescriptions because of financial cost (the national average is 5.5 per cent).

Finally, while pharmaceutical expenditures in Quebec have increased since the program was implemented, there has been a relative decrease in the use of other health services and, consequently, a lower level of total health spending (per capita). In fact, Quebec now has the lowest per capita health costs of any province, as some drug therapies may have replaced hospitalizations and more expensive treatments elsewhere in the health-care system.

Quebec’s mixed universal public-private system, partly based on mandated benefits, preserves the ability of employers to offer more generous benefit plans (which can be tailored for individual needs and preferences) than a single-payer public drug program.

These lessons from Quebec should surely inform today’s national conversation about pharmacare, particularly during this election season.

Yanick Labrie is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

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By Yanick Labrie

Yanick Labrie, Senior Fellow of the Fraser Institute, is a health economist and public policy consultant living in Montreal. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Concordia University and a master’s degree in economics from the Université de Montréal. Mr. Labrie’s career in health policy spans more than ten years. He has worked as an economist at the Montreal Economic Institute, the Center for Interuniversity Research and Analysis on Organizations (CIRANO) and was a lecturer at HEC Montréal’s Institute of Applied Economics.

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