Nearly 21 years ago, on May 20, 1997, the Liberal Party of Canada committed to “develop a national plan and timetable for introducing universal public coverage for medically necessary prescription drugs” (Liberal Red Book, pg. 7 and 8). Since then, the Liberals have held power for 11 years, enjoying a majority in the House Commons for nine of them. They have had ample opportunity to create good public policy to benefit all Canadians on prescription drugs, but they have lacked the political will to get the job done.
Fast-forward to today, and we see the current finance minister, Bill Morneau, advocating for a public-private pharmacare system — an idea haphazardly lifted from the NDP platform, but which, under his vision, would just exacerbate inequality. For many, that means not getting the life-saving medications they need to sustain a healthy, comfortable, dignified life.
A national pharmacare plan has been studied many times over the last few decades. However, what level of investment did the Liberal government commit to in the 2018 federal budget for a universal, national pharmacare plan? Precisely $0. This unfortunately paints a picture of the announcement adding up to more rhetoric and empty promises.
Canadians cannot wait for the federal government to get their act together. That’s why my colleague MP Don Davies, the NDP critic for health, tabled a motion last fall to implement a national pharmacare plan. Out of 157 Liberal MPs present for the vote that evening, only four of them voted in favour of the motion (Vote No. 364, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017).
Meanwhile, the Liberal-dominated Standing Committee on Health is flirting with the idea of recommending a national pharmacare plan, the details of which should be available in the coming weeks, following yet another study. So, where is the cognitive dissonance between promises made and public policy implemented? It lies in the lack of political will to do what is right.
Pharmacare is a prime example of a universal social program that would go a long way in making Canadians’ day-to-day lives easier and more affordable. The cost of prescription drugs is a major obstacle for those who live on fixed incomes and are not covered by an employer plan. Millions of Canadians are having to spend less on food in order to afford their prescriptions or are skipping their medicine altogether. And yet, while we hear a lot of talk on the subject, we rarely see the concrete action that protects Canadians who are most in need.
This is a time when we need to have the courage to get the job done. Canada remains the only major country that offers universal health care without a national drug plan, a perplexing situation from both a health and fiscal perspective.
Evidence has been clear for decades that universal pharmacare would expand coverage and improve outcomes, while reducing costs for Canadians. Estimated savings from universal drug coverage for Canadians is measured in the billions, and every health practitioner knows well the negative health impacts on patients who skip medicine because of cost.
It’s time for leadership from all levels of government to ensure that every Canadian has access to the health care they need, when they need it.