One can only wonder what it will take for Ottawa to introduce a much-needed national pharmacare program.
Universal public coverage of prescription drugs was recommended by the 1964 Royal Commission on Health Services, the National Forum on Health in 1997, and by another royal commission five years after that. Meanwhile, study after study has shown it could save the country anywhere from $4 billion to $11.4 billion.
So why hasn’t Ottawa acted? No matter what the overall savings to the country, a national pharmacare program would shift some costs currently borne by individuals and companies with benefit plans to the federal government.
But now a new study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests a novel way to break down that political barrier. The idea is to start small. The government could begin by simply covering the 117 essential medicines that account for 44 per cent of all prescriptions and 30 per cent of prescription drug spending.
It’s not a bad idea. In fact, it’s a good one if it gets the government on the road to finally establishing a full-fledged universal drug plan. “Doing so may be a pragmatic step forward while more comprehensive pharmacare reforms are planned,” the authors write.
The study estimates that this step alone would save Canadians and private drug-plans more than $4 billion a year through bulk buying, while costing the government only $1.2 billion.
The authors’ recommendation would also help federal Health Minister Jane Philpott meet one of the goals in the “mandate letter” given to her by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It instructed the minister to boost access to prescription medications by working with other governments to buy drugs in bulk, thereby “reducing the cost Canadian governments pay for these drugs, making them more affordable for Canadians.”
Indeed, the study found that essential medicines in New Zealand, where a public authority negotiates prices for the entire country, cost a stunning 84 per cent less than is paid in Canada. Here, for example, the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor costs $811 in Canada for a year’s supply. There it costs just $15.
Money isn’t the only reason to act.
Right now Canada is the only country in the world with a national health-care plan that doesn’t cover the cost of prescription medicines. That means many poor people who aren’t covered under private or government plans can’t afford prescription drugs. They often suffer needlessly and require more costly care in the long run.
The Trudeau government should make pharmacare a top priority both to save money and improve care. A small step towards that goal would be a good start.
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