Why Canada needs universal pharmacare and how to make it happen

drugs, pills, prescriptions
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Steve MorganOntario plans to provide a publicly-funded pharmacare system for children and youth in Ontario. It’s a small step in the right direction and, arguably, most important for its symbolism in a national debate.

Why just a small step? Because Ontario’s recently-announced plan will provide universal, comprehensive prescription medication coverage to the age group that uses medicines least often. Many working-age Ontarians, who are far more likely to require medicines than children, will still be uninsured.

Why symbolic? The program signals that government is taking responsibility for this component of health care, integrating it with medical and hospital care. This is as it should be.

Several national commissions on Canada’s health-care system have recommended adding prescription drugs to our publicly-funded universal medicare system. No federal government has ever acted on those recommendations.

By creating pharmacare junior, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Health Minister Eric Hoskins are essentially calling on the federal government to help finish the job and create a pharmacare program for all Canadians of all ages.

Here’s why Canada needs a universal, public pharmacare program, and what Canadians can do to make it happen now.

Access to essential medicines is a human right

The most important reason for universal pharmacare is that access to essential medicines is actually a human right, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO recommends that countries protect that right in law and with pharmaceutical policies that work in conjunction with broader systems of universal health coverage.

Every other high-income country with universal health care provides universal coverage of prescription drugs. It’s time Canada did the same.

It would save lives

Canada’s patchwork of private and public drug plans leaves millions of Canadians without coverage. As a result, Canadians are three to five times more likely to skip prescriptions because of cost than are residents of comparable countries with universal pharmacare programs.

A 2012 study estimated that inequities in drug coverage for working-age Ontarians with diabetes were associated with 5,000 deaths between 2002 and 2008. Nationally, this toll would be far greater.

It would save billions of dollars every year

Canadians spend 50 per cent more per capita on pharmaceuticals than residents of the United Kingdom, Sweden, New Zealand and several other countries with universal pharmacare programs. This amounts to spending $12 billion more each year and still not having pharmacare.

Why? Because the universal pharmacare programs in other countries use their purchasing power to obtain better drug prices than our fractured system. Among many examples of such price differences, a year’s supply of atorvastatin, a widely-used cholesterol drug, costs about $143 in Canada but only $27 in the United Kingdom and Sweden, and under $15 in New Zealand.

It would help Canadian businesses

The rising cost of pharmaceuticals are a growing burden on Canadian businesses. Part of the problem is that Canadian employers waste between $3 billion and $5 billion a year because employment-related private insurance is ill-equipped to manage pharmaceutical costs effectively.

Another part of the problem is that the number of prescription drugs costing more than $10,000 a year has grown almost ten-fold in the past decade.

Because such costs can quickly render a work-related health plan unsustainable – particularly for small businesses – it is best to manage them on a provincewide or nationwide basis.

It won’t happen unless citizens speak up

Billions of dollars in savings to Canadian taxpayers, employers and households equals billions of dollars of lost revenues to pharmaceutical industry stakeholders. Those stakeholders will not likely make it easy for government to implement universal pharmacare, no matter the benefit to Canadians and the broader economy.

To make pharmacare a reality for Canada, citizens need to get informed and involved. If they support the idea of universal, public pharmacare, they need to let others, particularly elected officials and political candidates, know they care and that they’ll support a government that takes action. A parliamentary e-petition is circulating in the hope of doing just that.

Without such a groundswell of public engagement, it’s unlikely that the federal government will implement a universal pharmacare program any time soon.

Steve Morgan is a professor in the UBC School of Population and Public Health.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

By Steve Morgan

Dr. Morgan is a full professor in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC. He has published over 150 peer-reviewed research papers and won more than $4 million in peer-reviewed research grants. He has provided policy advice and expert testimony to governments in Canada and abroad, and has twice represented Canada on pharmaceutical policy committees of the World Health Organization.

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