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Liberals veto national pharmacare while more Canadians can't fill their prescriptions

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Yesterday was the first meeting of the Commons Standing Committee on Health to study how Canada might create a national pharmacare program. A national drug plan was first recommended in a the 1964 Royal Commission on Health Services. Today, Canada remains "the only country in the world with a medicare system that excludes prescription drugs as if they are not part of the health-care system."

Roughly 52 years later, after 11 Liberal governments and six Conservative governments, Canadians remain left with a fragmented system and inequitable drug coverage. As it stands, 10 per cent of Canadians have no practical form of ongoing coverage.

As drug prices continue their meteoric rise, approximately one in five Canadians (previous data had shown one in 10), say that "they themselves or someone in their household resorted to saving money this past year by not buying drugs ordered by a doctor or by skimping on doses. That's a prescription for ill health."

At the same time, more than 90 per cent of Canadians support the concept of pharmacare and health economists have shown through studies that, "Canada-wide savings from national pharmacare at between $4 billion and $11 billion per year, depending on how the program is structured."

Reliable research has shown that on a total cost of $27 billion paid for drugs, we pay up to $11 billion more than we would with a national plan. Meanwhile both provincial plans and private insurance plans are struggling under the high prices and cutting back coverage. If done correctly national, comprehensive universal pharmacare coverage is a no-brainer, and the Council of Canadians has joined 300 health professionals and academics in a letter urging the government to support universal pharamacare.

It came as a major disappointment this week that Canada's Health Minister, Jane Philpott, indicated pharmacare is not part of her mandate. It has been reported that the minister believes pharmacare is too costly and she has highlighted it will not be introduced in this Parliament.

"It sounds like it might be expensive and that's one of the reasons we're not in the position where we're about to implement pharmacare," Philpott stated. "There are public drug plans across the country for people who can't afford medication."

It is hard to understand why the minister is ignoring the evidence-based data that shows Canada could improve health outcomes and save costs with a national pharmacare program. While she hinted her government would look at a national formulary, this is a far from universal pharmacare (not to mention concerns over how the pharmaceutical industry could influence the formulary).

During the standing committee, Tanya Potashnik, Director of Policy and Economic Analysis at the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB), explained, "By any measure, Canadians spend an inordinate amount on drugs relative to our OECD partners...On average, Canadian prices are 26 per cent higher than the OECD median. Canada spends more per capita and as a percentage of GDP on drugs than most other OECD countries."

There is clearly a problem and people (usually the most vulnerable in our society who do not have the economic and social clout to pressure our government) are falling through the cracks as prices rise. Numerousreports show us that there is a better path that puts the health of Canadians first.

We have a historic opportunity with the negotiations for a new Health Accord to include pharmacare.  This is both feasible and realistic, but it takes political will above all else. The role of Health Canada, the Ministry of Health, and the Health Minister needs to be refocused on providing people the coverage they need and the social programs we all deserve. 

For far too long governments have abandoned the idea of building legacy social programs that will create a better future for everyone.  We hope this government and the health minister find the courage to re-examine their decision and put the well being of Canadians first and ahead of the exorbitant profits of the pharmaceutical industry. Now is the time.

*A sample of the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying of the Minister and Ministry of Health since the Liberal government was sworn in on November 4, 2015.

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