Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves after holding a press conference in Ottawa on Friday, May 7, 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves after holding a press conference in Ottawa on Friday, May 7, 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Health care providers, advocates cry foul over stalled action on pharmacare

Liberals have been making spoken commitments towards pharmacare since 2019

Doctors and nurses on the front lines of Canada’s health system are sounding the alarm after the Liberal government appears to have put its promise of a national pharmacare program on the back burner.

When the Trudeau government delivered its first federal budget in two years last month, it included more than $100 billion in new spending over the three years.

But while there was one brief mention of pharmacare in the 739-page document, it only re-stated a commitment from the 2019 budget of $500 million for a national program for high-cost drugs for rare diseases.

Dr. Melanie Bechard, a pediatric emergency room physician and chair of Doctors for Medicare, says she was disappointed at the lack of new funding for pharmacare in the budget. She believes it’s an indication the government is not making it a priority.

“I was very disappointed because the government has promised national pharmacare. They’ve conducted a study that really outlined the path to get there,” she said.

Even the Budget 2021 document itself acknowledges that “the case for universal pharmacare is well-established,” Bechard noted.

“The budget acknowledges that it makes sense. It’s good public policy. But unfortunately, we’re just getting words instead of any funding towards it, so that’s completely ineffectual.”

The Liberals campaigned on a promise to “take the critical next steps to implement national universal pharmacare” in their 2019 election platform, and similar commitments have since appeared in throne speeches and mandate letters to the federal health minister.

In 2019, an expert panel appointed by the Liberals recommended a universal, single-payer public pharmacare system should be created in Canada to replace the current patchwork of prescription drug plans. This panel, which was led by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, reported that such a plan would result in savings of an estimated $5 billion annually.

Canadians spent $34 billion on prescription medicines in 2018, the panel report said, adding drugs are the second-biggest expenditure in health care after hospitals.

Bechard says emergency room doctors and primary care physicians see patients every day whose health conditions have worsened from trying to ration medications they can’t afford.

“I have seen instances where kids have come into the emergency department having asthma attacks, and the parents show me inhalers and they’re nearly empty. And when I say, ‘We need to refill this so that we can avoid situations like this,’ the parents say, ‘Well, these are expensive to refill, Dr. Melanie, we can’t always afford to get a new one every couple of months.’

“And it’s sad because arguably the child did not need to come into the emergency department if they had sufficient medication at home.”

While she also expressed disappointment at not seeing new spending for pharmacare in the budget, Sharon Batt, adjunct professor of bioethics and political science at Dalhousie University and a health policy expert, said she was not surprised.

“It does seem like it’s taken a back burner,” she said.

“Certainly there’s a huge resistance to this plan… on the part of the pharmaceutical industry, some of the patient groups and some researchers, and I think that is definitely playing out within the government’s priorities and making it harder for them to move forward with pharmacare.”

Some provinces and territories have also been lukewarm toward the idea of pharmacare, pushing instead for increases to federal health transfers.

Batt attributes this resistance to the reason Ottawa is instead focusing its efforts on creating a program to fund medications for rare diseases, which has more political buy-in.

“I think they’re just kind of kicking the can down the road and hoping that the industry will back off or that there will be more public pressure against the industry,” Batt said of the federal government.

“I think they don’t know what to do. I think they probably would like to bring a plan in, but they want to have the public support. And that would include patient support.”

Earlier this year, the NDP tabled a private member’s bill to establish the legal framework for a national pharmacare plan, but it was defeated at second reading by a vote of 295-32. Only two Liberal MPs supported the bill.

NDP health critic Don Davies said he worries Canadians are increasingly becoming cynical about politicians who promise things, such as pharmacare, during elections and then don’t follow through.

“They continue to tell Canadians that they believe in pharmacare, yet opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to act on that promise passes.”

Health Minister Patty Hajdu was not available for an interview, but her spokesman, Cole Davidson, pointed to the paragraph in Budget 2021 that commits to work with provinces and stakeholders to “build on the foundational elements that are already in progress, like the national strategy on high-cost drugs for rare diseases, toward the goal of a universal national program.”

He also noted Ottawa has established a “transition office to create a new Canada Drug Agency and a national formulary” and officials are currently working with provinces and experts to create a drug plan for Canadians with rare diseases, with a target launch date of 2022-23.

“No Canadian should have to choose between paying for prescriptions and putting food on the table,” Davidson said in a statement.

“We’re committed to working collaboratively with willing jurisdictions to develop a national, universal pharmacare program, and that important work continues.”

Linda Silas, who presides over the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said nurses across Canada were sure that pharmacare was a “done deal” after the last election.

The budget’s lack of focus on making it a reality is concerning, she said.

“You’d think, because we’re in the middle of a health crisis, they would have put a big focus on a health crisis that already exists. One in four families do not have prescription drug coverage, that’s a crisis for those families.”

However, Silas said she wasn’t entirely surprised not to see new money in the budget for pharmacare. In the lead-up to its release, she said her organization was consulted numerous times by Liberal cabinet ministers and officials asking for input on what should be in the budget.

When she told them pharmacare was at the top of the list, she said there was a notable change in tone.

“The messages we were hearing was, ‘Well, Linda, is there something else (other) than pharmacare?…You know, Linda, our priorities are pharmacare. But if pharmacare is not there, what else should be in there?’ ” she said, recalling the conversations.

Speaking ahead of her shift at the children’s hospital in Ottawa, Bechard said she doesn’t understand how pharmacare has seemingly fallen off the radar when she believes the case for bringing in a national medicare plan is “even more dire” due to COVID-19.

“The pandemic has brought with it massive amounts of job losses and unemployment, and in our current system people rely on employment to get coverage for medications,” she said.

“Arguably now, more than ever, we need to have national, universal pharmacare to make sure that people can actually access the meds they need to stay healthy.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Healthcarepharmacare plan

Just Posted

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

North Westside residents can dispose of their unwanted bulky items between June 30 and July 14, 2021. (File photo)
North Westside residents can soon get rid of unwanted bulky items

Large household items can be disposed of at North Westside Transfer Station June 30 to July 14

Starting in 2022, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District is extending dog control to the entire Electoral Area D area. (Stock photo)
Dog control bylaw passes in Shuswap area despite ‘threatening’ emails

CSRD board extending full dog control to Electoral Area D; director calls for respectful discussion

The new Civic Memorial Park will incorporate pieces of the 80-year-old arena it replaces. (Artists rendering)
Pieces of Civic Arena reclaimed for new Vernon park

City centre space to incorporate wood from the historic arena

Fruit farmers in the Okanagan and Creston valleys are in desperate need of cherry harvesters amid COVID-19 work shortages. (Photo: Unsplash/Abigail Miller)
‘Desperate’ need for workers at Okanagan cherry farms

Fruit farmers are worried they’ll have to abandon crops due to COVID-19 work shortages

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

Jaimee Peters photo of a Willow Midwives helping with a birth. Willow closed its doors March 31 because of a shortage of midwives. (Contributed)
South Okanagan’s only midwifery to re-open this summer

Willow Community Midwives was forced to close because of a shortage of midwives

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

Gord with a mom and her young son outside Pathways which was defunded on May 31. (Facebook)
Gord Portman with a mom and her child outside of Pathways. The sign says it all about the difference Pathways has made in people’s lives. They were defunded by Interior Health on May 31.
Penticton man takes the plunge for the recovery house that helped save his life

Gord Portman said Discovery House and Pathways have been everything in his 1 year sobriety

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed Eli Beauregard facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Most Read