The Trudeau government took an important step toward a national pharmacare program on Friday when it announced changes to how prices for drugs are set in Canada.
The adjustments are expected to produce $13 billion in savings over the next decade by giving new, more sensible guidelines to the review board that sets the maximum prices companies can charge for prescription drugs.
Lowering drug prices will make a national program a lot more affordable, which is why Health Minister Ginettte Petitpas Taylor positioned it as a necessary move toward that long-delayed goal.
That’s the glass-half-full way of looking at it. But it’s also true that the Liberal government has waited until very late in its mandate to take even this rather modest step.
The timing is clearly no accident. It sets up universal pharmacare to be one of the key issues in the upcoming federal election – as it should be.
After years of debate, and years of no action, it’s high time for Canadians to have a say on one of the most important questions affecting their overall health.
Fully 88 per cent of Canadians say they favour a universal pharmacare program. And, as it stand, the Liberals, NDP and Green Party all support such a program — in principle at least. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, on the other hand, says it would be unaffordable and unworkable.
That position is increasingly hard to justify. Two Royal Commissions and a National Forum on Health going back to the 1960s all recommended that Canada adopt a national pharmacare program. An expert panel headed by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins came to the same conclusion as recently as June.
Indeed, Canada is the only country in the western world with a universal health care system that does not include drug coverage.
As a result, one in five Canadians who are not covered by government, private or employer drug plans struggle to pay for their prescription medicines.
Some resort to not buying food in order to pay for them. Others cut prescription dosages in half, reducing their efficacy. Still others simply go without, ending up in hospital with medical complications that could have been avoided.
In other words, to save on drugs this country spends a fortune on hospital care for people who could have avoided illnesses. That doesn’t include the social costs that arise when parents, for example, can’t work because they didn’t get the right drugs for their ailments.
The Liberals should have moved more aggressively on this front during their four-year mandate, but it’s not hard to understand why they took a cautious approach.
One reason is the cost of establishing the program in the first place, estimated at some $15 billion once it is fully implemented. Hence the drive to lower the price of prescription drugs.
Further, changes are also expected to cut drug company earnings by an estimated $9 billion over 10 years. And they have a formidable lobbying arm. Indeed, Big Pharma didn’t waste a moment getting their two cents in after Petitpas Taylor’s announcement.
Innovative Medicines Canada, the Canadian branch of Big Pharma’s global lobby, warned that the proposed measures could limit Canadians’ access to new medicines by delaying or discouraging the introduction of new drugs in this country and reducing incentives for investment in health research.
But the government is right to face Big Pharma down for the good of all Canadians.
The fact is, patients in countries with universal pharmacare have not seen a reduction in accessibility to new drugs.
And it beggars belief that pharmaceutical companies would not conduct research to create new drugs that could earn them billions just because wee Canada introduces a pharmacare program.
In the end, the bottom line should not be about drug company profits. It should be about saving money — and lives.