House Call with Carol Hughes

No help for Canadians who can’t afford medication

When the Liberals and Conservatives voted against the NDP’s bill to make universal pharmacare for all a reality in Canada, they did more than leave behind millions of Canadians in need of help, they also showed whose side they’re on in a debate that pits affordable health care against remnants of for-profit health care in the drug and insurance industries.

Even though the outcome was predictable, it was still disappointing. That’s because among the items promised in the last federal election was a pledge to bring the costs of prescription drugs under the coverage of the Health Canada Act. The fact that two major parties proposed the idea makes it sound as if it has broad appeal, which it does. But what if one of the parties supporting the notion is only doing so to protect existing drug plans and insurance schemes by promoting a watered-down version? That might explain why the government opposed the NDP legislation that would have made pharmacare a reality for Canadians.

To be fair, the Liberals’ commitment to pharmacare has been inconsistent for decades. Despite promises dating back to the 1990s, they have never gone beyond exploration of the topic. It seems as if they get to the point where insurance companies and drug companies don’t like where the discussion is headed and any political will attached to the concept recedes to the background until external pressure forces them to dust off the idea, and study it again.

The latest study provided the template for the NDP bill that was defeated. It was based on the final report of the advisory council on the implementation of national pharmacare, chaired by prominent Liberal and former Ontario cabinet member, Dr. Eric Hoskins. His report called for the implementation of a universal single-payer, comprehensive and public pharmacare plan. This is the model that the parliamentary budget officer has shown will save Canadians billions in drug costs. Any limited form of the program offers little in savings in order to preserve the advantage held by insurance and drug companies.

Under a limited scenario, there is no guarantee that the challenges of a universal, single-payer, comprehensive and public pharmacare plan would solve will be dealt with in any way. With one in five Canadians unable to afford the medication their doctors prescribe and COVID exposing the gaps in our health care system, this is not the time to double down on drug and insurance company profits.

What might make that decision more problematic for the government is the broad-based support for pharmacare across the country. When polled on the subject, 88 percent of Canadians want it implemented. They recognize that pharmacare has the potential to revolutionize tight household budgets in the same way that universal, single-payer, comprehensive and public health coverage did. It is also important to remember that there were dire warnings issued along the path to public health care too. Those were overstated and have been long forgotten due to the success of the public option and the way in which it has come to define Canada.

Yet, despite no end of good reasons, the government chose to walk past the promise they have been making for over 24 years. In the process they displayed little understanding of how much Canadians are struggling to afford their prescription medication. Instead of following the recommendations they asked for from the advisory council on the implementation of national pharmacare, they sided with prescription profiteers and abandoned families across the country. While New Democrats understand this is the wrong choice, we won’t let disappointment stop our efforts and will keep fighting for programs to make people’s lives better and more affordable.