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OPINION: Implement Public Universal Pharmacare

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Mary Boyd, Carl Pursey and Rhonda Mills

Guest Opinion

Members of the P.E.I. Health Coalition were among the 110 people from across Canada who lobbied MPs on Parliament Hill last week for universal public pharmacare. The lobby was organized by the Canadian Health Coalition.

Canada is the only country with a universal public healthcare system that doesn’t include public pharmacare. We pay the third highest costs among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries for patented drugs and the highest costs for generic drugs. Federal leadership is crucial to replace the costly patchwork of drug plans across the country, which all offer different levels of coverage.

Last spring, the federal government appointed an advisory council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare, chaired by Dr. Eric Hoskins. The council’s report is due in June.

Research shows that a universal pharmacare program would put extra money in the pockets of citizens, and employers would not have to pay for and administer private insurance plans. According to Dr. Marc-Andre Gagnon, associate professor in the School of Public Policy Administration at Carleton University, countries with universal drug coverage have better access to prescription drugs at an average cost of 30 per cent less per capita, or $11 billion less per year.

Opponents of public pharmacare are lobbying hard for a “fill in the gaps” approach to help the 10 per cent of Canadians who can’t afford their prescribed drugs. Private insurance companies and drug manufacturers are promoting the Quebec model, which is the most expensive drug program in Canada. Quebec spends 20 per cent more on prescription drugs than the rest of the country. The “fill in the gaps” model fails to address the key issue: reducing the high and escalating cost of drugs. A public Pharmacare plan would greatly reduce those costs through bulk buying and price negotiation.

Most private drug plans will reimburse any new drug at any price. To obtain Health Canada approval, new drugs need only show they are better than a placebo. This leaves little incentive for drug companies to produce real therapeutic innovation. In its annual reports, the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) states that between 2010 and 2017, four out of five new patented drugs did not represent a significant therapeutic improvement over existing drugs, despite some of the new drugs having astronomical prices. Fully public and universal pharmacare would discriminate in favour of therapeutically significant drugs and ensure better value for money.

One in four Canadian households can’t afford to take their drugs as prescribed by their doctor. This causes extra strain on individuals and on the health care system. It results in poorer health and more frequent visits to the hospital and doctor’s office, at an annual cost of $7 billion to $9 billion.

There are currently over 100,000 public and private drug plans in Canada. Some people have partial coverage and many have no plan at all. People risk losing their coverage if they retire or they lose or change jobs.

Our universal health care system provides care based on peoples’ needs, not their ability to pay. Why should people have to choose between buying food and medicine? This would not happen with a public universal pharmacare program.

Public pharmacare would be “good of all.” P.E.I.’s MPs are in favour of it. The federal government has the tools and the revenue to implement public universal pharmacare. Now is the time to do it.

Mary Boyd is chair of the P.E.I. Health Coalition. Carl Pursey is president of the P.E.I. Federation of Labour and a member of the P.E.I. Health Coalition and Rhonda Mills is the health representative for CUPE on the P.E.I. Health Coalition.

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