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Health committee cheers idea of national pharmacare program, but cost an issue

Last Updated Apr 18, 2018 at 7:46 pm EDT

Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor listens to a question during an announcement on funding for the opioid crisis in Ottawa on Monday, March 26, 2018. A House of Commons committee has delivered its recommendations to government today on how it believes government should move forward on a national pharmacare plan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Publicly funded prescription drugs under a universal pharmacare program would provide better health care to Canadians at a lower cost than the status quo, the House of Commons health committee declared Wednesday after two years of work and some 99 witnesses.

“Canadians can save money and have better health outcomes with a national pharmacare program,” committee chair Bill Casey said in releasing the group’s long-awaited report.

After hearing from health care advocates and expert witnesses, Casey said he was surprised to learn just how many Canadians are simply opting to forego important medications that they need for serious health conditions.

“They know they’re going remain ill and they know they’re not going to get better because they just can’t afford those pharmaceuticals.”

The current patchwork of drug coverage in Canada is just not working, he said. “It’s a very erratic system and as a result we pay more for pharmaceuticals than 26 other OECD countries.”

Wednesday’s report includes 18 recommendations the committee says could form a blueprint of sorts for a new single-payer, publicly funded prescription drug coverage program for all Canadians.

But there was disagreement among the all-party committee about just how much such a program would cost and how it should be implemented.

Conservative health critic Marilyn Gladu says she fears the costs could be far higher than the $19 billion annual estimate put forward in a recent report by the parliamentary budget officer.

It’s also unclear how many Canadians who are currently covered by private drug plans would be willing to give up the coverage they receive in exchange for a publicly funded model, she added.

“I think it’s important to answer the questions that remain; there was some conflicting data within the report,” she said, “and also to talk to the provinces, because they have jurisdiction in this area.”

Following question period Wednesday, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said she had not yet had a chance to review the report, but promised that an advisory group established in February would review the recommendations and build upon this work.

The advisory group, led by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, was announced as part of the federal budget in February to work with provinces and territories and Indigenous groups on the feasibility of a national pharmacare plan.

NDP MPs accused Petitpas Taylor and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of stalling for time.

“We know one in five Canadians can’t afford to pay for their medication,” said NDP finance critic Peter Julian.

“Mr. Trudeau doesn’t have any more excuses not to act… universal single-payer pharmacare is not only cost effective, will not only save Canadians money, it will ensure that every Canadian has access to the medication they need.”

Health care advocacy groups that have long called for a national pharmacare program cheered the committee report, and urged the government to act quickly on its recommendations.

The recommendations include calls for a national drug formulary that would be cost-shared between the federal government and the provinces and territories, with additional support from health transfer payments going to the provinces and territories.

Such work demands careful negotiation and a science-based approach, said Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.

“You need the how-to steps, what are the steps that Canada and the provinces and territories are going to take,” she said.