OTTAWA - The federal Liberals will appoint a group of advisers, led by Ontario's former health minister, to explore options for a national program to cover the cost of prescription drugs - and are already making it easier to cover the cost of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.
The two measures, while unrelated, form part of a trinity of major drug initiatives in Tuesday's federal budget, the third being a $231-million package of steps that aims to confront Canada's escalating opioid crisis, including $150 million in emergency funding.
The next year will see former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins head up an advisory council to come up with options on how to create a national pharmacare program - a program that the parliamentary budget watchdog has warned could cost $19 billion a year.
An estimated 10 per cent of Canadians can't afford their prescription drugs each year, the Liberals say.
“We're trying to get at this issue. It's a really important issue,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau told a news conference Tuesday before the budget was tabled.
“It's, in our estimation, just not acceptable that a significant subset of the population doesn't have access to pharmaceutical products.”
Morneau didn't give a timeline on when the council will have to report its findings - fuelling speculation that the Liberals plan to make pharmacare a centrepiece of its 2019 election campaign and take away a key talking point for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
In the meantime, the Liberals say they won't apply new sales taxes to cannabis-based pharmaceutical products that can be obtained with a prescription.
Nor will taxes be applied to oils that contain low amounts of THC, the primary psychoactive element in marijuana, that are used by children with certain medical conditions.
As well, the government says it plans to look at creating a rebate program to retroactively reimburse patients an unspecified amount for taxes already paid on cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.
Taxes on marijuana will amount to $1 per gram, or 10 per cent of product price, when a legalized cannabis regime comes into effect by this fall. The federal government will keep up to $100 million on the new taxes as part of a cost sharing split that will see three-quarters of cannabis tax revenue flow to provinces and territories.
The Opposition Conservatives have chided the government for moving too fast on legal pot, suggesting there are outstanding public safety issues that need to be addressed.
The budget outlines $62.5 million over five years beginning this year for public education programs around cannabis use, and a further $20 million over five years for research by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.
The Liberals are also spending $80.5 million over five years starting this year to reduce tobacco use, particularly in Indigenous communities, and raising taxes on cigarettes by $1 per carton.
On opioids, provinces and territories will receive $150 million in emergency funding this year to deal with a crisis that is projected to claim more than 4,000 lives this year.
The balance of the $231.4 million will go towards public education campaigns, better access to public health data and new equipment and tools to allow border agents to better detect dangerous opioids like fentanyl before they enter the country.