Labour Views: We need Universal Pharmacare

By Jack Bourassa


Do you wake up in the morning having to decide between paying for prescriptions or buying groceries? Many have to choose between those life necessities or go without the medication they need. No one ever should be in a position to make this decision. Many of us are fortunate to be healthy, have insurance or can afford prescriptions. Even if you happen to be in a good situation, you might know at least a friend, co-worker, a family member or even an acquaintance who struggles paying for medications. Nearly one million Canadians give up food and heat so they can afford medications. If there is one campaign that could unite us in the next federal elections— let it be Universal Pharmacare. This program is going to ensure that everyone with access to healthcare will also have access to prescription drugs.

World Health Organization is focusing on universal health coverage for this year’s World Health Day on April 7. Let’s not undermine the fact that there are many parts of the world in which people are deprived from basic health care. Canada is not one of them, but our system is far from perfect. It’s important to reflect on the progress we have made. However, that’s not enough. I believe that we all have the collective obligation and power to create change that would make Canada ranked as one of the best places in terms of health care.  

A couple of weeks ago, there were some positive steps in the path of Pharmacare. I’m optimistic to see that Federal Budget 2019 addresses the high costs of prescription drugs. “Canadians pay among the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. Brand-name medications cost, on average, 20 per cent more in Canada compared to other advanced economies— making paying for prescription drugs difficult for some families,” stated Budget 2019 report. In order to make drugs more affordable, the government intends to create “The Canadian Drug Agency.” Amongst other duties, this body will negotiate drug prices on behalf of Canadians. There is also funding to expand drug coverage for patients with rare diseases.

While the idea of creating The Canadian Drug Agency seems to be good on paper, the plan is void of a solid foundation. Who is going to sit on the board? Will there be fair representation on behalf of Canadians? How effective will the negotiations be? To me, all of those questions remain unanswered. It’s hard to judge a plan prior to its implementation, but there are concerns that the proposed steps are not the solution to the problem. The current system, with its proposed solutions, remain a band aid patchwork. However, I’m optimistic knowing the issue is finally being addressed and acknowledged. The only effective solution is “Universal Pharmacare”.  

A single payer system is the only way to control the unreasonable prescription drugs’ prices. Prescription drugs, made in Canada, cost less for consumers elsewhere. Opponents to Universal Pharmacare argue that the costs of prescription drugs will pose as an economic burden. However, if the government becomes the single payer, it will be capable to negotiate the prices effectively. This is more cost effective than caring for patients who end up in hospitals because they skipped their prescriptions. Let’s compare prices between Canada and another developed country – New Zealand. A CBC report compared the cost of prescription drugs in Canada versus New Zealand. Amlodipine, a blood pressure treatment, costs $130 annually in Canada. The same prescription, made in Canada, costs $10 a year in New Zealand. While New Zealand negotiated the price, Canada left it to the pharmaceutical industry to decide.

Canada is the only nation in the world with a universal public health care system that does not include universal coverage for prescription drugs. A long time ago we were the pioneers of a good health system, but we are now falling behind.

I could carry on with why it makes sense economically to have a Universal Pharmacare. But do I need to do that?  While I’m campaign for a Living Wage in the North, I keep reminding myself of the costs that a person who works for a Minimum Wage has to incur. Many of those jobs do not provide benefits or health insurance. Those who suffer the most are usually the most vulnerable in our communities. No one should skip medications or otherwise be hungry. The question is: do we care for one another enough to make this an election issue?

I remain positive and optimistic. The good news is that no matter where you stand in terms of politics, you have the choice to make “Universal Pharmacare” an election promise that we can hold the next government accountable for. As federal elections are coming up, you’ll get a chance to ask candidates about their platform and plans. Let’s make pharmacare a priority for all of us. Good health care and quality of life should not be partisan.


This column originally appeared in Yellowknifer on April 3, 2019.