Pharmacare—It's about Time
/ Author: Hank Beekhuis
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Pharmacare—It's about Time

Canada pays more for prescription drugs than almost every other developed nation, and the costs keep going up. It’s hurting the health outcomes—and wallets—of Canadians everywhere

By Hank Beekhuis, National Representative

In the past six months, we’ve heard a lot about a new proposed national pharmacare program. Healthcare professionals and unions have been talking about the need for this type of program for many years, but now it appears that the premiers are actually putting it on the agenda in their negotiations with the prime minister. It’s finally getting serious—and long over due—discussion.

I spent most of my years with CLAC on the union’s benefits committee helping to oversee CLAC’s benefits plans, including its drug plan. The costs associated with drugs make up 15 to 25 percent of the total cost of a benefits plan.

Every year at renewal time, we’d receive notification of double-digit increases for drug costs for the coming year, even though inflation was only expected to be one to two percent. These increases went on more than a decade. They were was always well over inflation and there was nothing we could do to control these costs.

Drugs are a large cost in Canada’s healthcare system and there are too few controls on prices, particularly on generic drugs. It is time that the buying power of the government was used to leverage these prices for the good of all Canadians.

One study estimated that if it were to do so on a list of 117 “essential medications”—common drugs for common ailments—Canadians and health benefits plans would save $4.3 billion per year at a cost of $1.2 billion to the government. It’s all about the bulk purchasing power.

According to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Nations with national pharmacare programs pay much less than Canada for their essential drugs. Costs are 60 percent less in Sweden and 84 percent less in New Zealand.

Canada currently has a patchwork drug system across the country. Each province has a slightly different approach. Generally, patients in a hospital receive free drugs, and seniors and low-income earners also receive a certain amount of drug coverage.

Altogether, 29 percent of Canadians are covered through publicly funded plans, 66 percent through private insurers, and the rest are left without basic coverage. Some of them are not poor enough to qualify for coverage from the government, but don’t have enough income to pay for the drugs they need. Even those with drug coverage through private insurers often don’t have enough coverage to adequately cover costs.

As a result, one in ten Canadians goes without filling or refilling their prescriptions. They end up cutting their pills to make them last, live with chronic illnesses that could be alleviated, and some even die early. The alternative for them is to cut back on other necessities, or go into considerable debt.

Canada has a medical system we can all be proud of. It has its issues, but none of them are insurmountable.

We have universal healthcare. It is high time that everyone who needs medication should have access to it at a reasonable cost—regardless of circumstances or geography. No one deliberately gets cancer or other health issues. People’s health outcomes shouldn’t depend on how much money they make, or whether they have a benefits plan.

Let’s hope for a positive response from the federal government so that everyone can enjoy equal access to this key healthcare program.


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