A bane of the neoliberal agenda but salvation to countless Canadians, the vision of a national pharmacare program has made a baby step toward realization.
The federal government has joined Canadian provinces and territories in a bulk-buying drug program that aims to lower the cost of prescription medications.While this development is most welcome news, (after all, the Alliance did save buyers $490 million last year) it can only be viewed as an interim measure on the seemingly endless journey toward a national drug plan that would save countless lives and billions of dollars currently being spent inefficiently by both government and private citizens; indeed, many of the latter can ill afford the costly prescriptions that could keep them out of hospital or worse.
Health Minister Jane Philpott says drug plans administered by the federal government will unite with the provincial and territorial pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance, which negotiates to lower prices on brand name and generic drugs.
Philpott says in a statement that combining the negotiating power of federal, provincial and territorial governments achieves greater savings for all publicly funded drug programs, increases access to drug-treatment options and improves consistency of pricing across Canada.
A recent column by The Star's Martin Regg Cohn casts the problem into sharp relief:
[I]f we had grappled with prescription drugs the way advanced West European countries have, we would be saving billions of dollars a year by now. Canada is second only to the U.S. in per capita spending on prescription drugs, well ahead of European countries.While we are rightfully proud of our healthcare system, one that stands in sharp contrast to that of the United States, we have tended to ignore the fact that ours is the only Western publicly-funded system that doesn't have a pharmacare component. This grave deficiency has even been acknowledged and deplored by the right-leaning C.D Howe Institute which, in a recent study, drew the following conclusion:
In fact, Canada keeps paying the price for a wasteful, inefficient, inequitable, fragmented system that leaves every patient to fend for himself or herself — unless he or she has a company drug benefit plan, gets welfare, or qualifies for seniors’ subsidies. If you’re working poor, or merely working precariously (as many young people are today, jumping from job to job or flitting from contract to contract, never qualifying for benefits coverage) ... tough luck.
It is clearly time to rethink pharmacare in Canada. Though the immediate effect of expanding public drug coverage would be an increase in government expenditures, this would likely be more than offset by savings to patients, employers, unions, and individuals who purchase stand-alone private drug coverage, producing a net cost reduction for Canada as a whole.As pointed out in a Star editorial, the burden of paying for prescription medicines can be very heavy for some individuals:
It’s estimated that one household in five spends $500 or more on prescription drugs each year, and 7 per cent pay more than $1,000 annually. Those unable to pay often go without medicine. And even people covered by workplace drug insurance plans are typically stuck with costly deductibles and co-payments.It is to be hoped that with the termination of the Harper regime, Canada has left behind its official contempt for evidence-based decision-making. Compelling research clearly tells us that the time is right for finally initiating pharmacare for all of us.