Story of change

Your right to health: The call for universal pharmacare

Published on 17/03/2016

Daruun works at a paint factory and suffers from low blood pressure with frequent fainting spells. He can’t afford the heart medication prescribed by his physician. His neighbor Denise has diabetes which costs her $2,300 a year for insulin and supplies. She works in the public sector where her employer-provided health benefits cover the cost, so she doesn’t have to worry.

In Community Health Centres, our health service providers see a lot of people like Daruun who cannot afford the prescription drugs they need to be healthy. A recent Angus Reid poll found that 23 per cent of Canadians say they or someone in their home cannot pay for their medications and are skipping doses or cutting pills to make them go further. Drug coverage depends on who your employer is, your age, your income and where you live in Canada.

Our right to health as Canadians should include, along with universal coverage for medical and hospital services, access to the medications prescribed by our health service providers. However, Canada is the only developed country with a universal health system that does not cover prescription drugs.

Moreover, our current patchwork of public and private drug plans is inefficient, costing government, businesses and families billions of dollars every year. In fact, Canadians are paying some of the highest drug prices in the world because, unlike other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we don’t have one public plan that can negotiate the best rates. A growing body of research shows that a national drug coverage plan that is public, affordable and safe would ensure access to prescription medicines and could save over $7 billion annually.

This is why a number of organizations came together last year to launch the Campaign for National Drug Coverage with the aim of getting this issue on the federal election agenda. The campaign was successful with three out of the four major parties including it as part of their official platforms. As well, the media picked up on the issue, including a CBC town hall meeting on whether Canada should have a national drug plan.

The election hasn’t stopped the campaign. On November 18, 2015, the Toronto Star published a letter from 331 health professionals and academics urging the government to put Pharmacare at the top of the Canadian health care agenda.

Since the election, federal and provincial health ministers have met and agreed to create a working group to explore how to improve Canadians’ access to pharmaceutical drugs. The new government has promised to provide greater bulk buying to bring down the cost of prescription drugs in government plans. But it has yet to commit to a new universal pharmacare plan.

Canadians will need to keep up the pressure on the new federal government. Only when everyone has equitable access to the medicines they need to be healthy, are we all better off.

Jacquie Maund is Policy & Government Relations Lead, Association of Ontario Health Centres.

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