The federal government is reigning in expectations for a new national pharmacare plan, saying it will be “fiscally responsible” in moving forward on a program to only fill existing gaps in drug coverage.
Tuesday’s budget revealed the government’s ambition to make national pharmacare a reality with the creation of an advisory council led by Dr. Eric Hoskins, who resigned his post as Ontario’s health minister to take on the new role.
The government’s goal is to ensure “all Canadians have access to pharmaceuticals,” federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau said Wednesday.
But as he launched efforts to publicize budget initiatives, Morneau sought to dial down expectations that the potential pharmacare program would completely replace existing public and private drug plans.
He even took pains to stress that the government is considering a “strategy,” not a “plan.”
“We recognize that we need a strategy to deal with the fact that not everyone has access and we do it in a way that is responsible, that deals with the gaps, that doesn’t throw out the system that we currently have,” Morneau said during a morning event hosted by the Economic Club of Canada.
“There are parts of the system that are working well. There are parts of the system that really aren’t working,” Morneau said, adding that about 1 million Canadians can’t afford the prescription drugs they need.
In the Commons, NDP MP Guy Caron accused the Liberals of foot-dragging, saying no further study of the idea is needed. “The time for universal pharmacare is now,” Caron said.
But in his morning appearance, Morneau defended the need for study to weigh changes in the workforce that have increasingly left Canadians with no benefit plans to help cover the cost of prescription drugs and dramatic changes in the cost of pharmaceuticals. “We need to consider those factors,” he said.
“We need to consider how we can best make use of our existing system, which after all for most people is probably working but recognizing there are very significant gaps that we need to deal with,” he said.
The advisory council will consider models around the world and make recommendations on how best to move forward. It will be the job of the council to craft a model that ensures all Canadians have access to pharmaceuticals in a way that is “fiscally responsible,” Morneau said.
There’s speculation that the government wants be able to roll out the initiative in 2019, ahead of the next federal election.
In a 2017 report, the parliamentary budget officer estimates that $28.5 billion was spent on prescription drugs in Canada in 2015 — $13.1 billion by public insurance plans, $10.7 billion by private insurance plans and $4.7 billion by individuals.
But it said rising prices have put drugs beyond the reach of some Canadians, those who lack coverage and even those who do but don’t have the money to pay their required share.