VANCOUVER — The federal government wants to join the provinces and territories to cut the cost of prescription drugs but stopped short Thursday of announcing a concrete plan.
Health Minister Jane Philpott said addressing the cost of pharmaceuticals and other health-care services is one of the federal Liberal government's priorities after meeting in Vancouver with provincial and territorial health ministers.
"I recognize the pressures that my provincial and territorial counterparts face on a day-to-day basis and I am committed to bringing real change to health-care systems," Philpott said at a news conference.
"We'll be looking at a range of options from making drugs more affordable and accessible to supporting better integrated and expanded access to services at home, such as in-home palliative care," she said.
Philpott said the ministers were "able to take an important first step in building a consensus in key areas where change is vital."
She highlighted the formation of a working group to discuss a national pharmaceutical strategy, saying she had "considerable" discussions with her colleagues about a potential shared approach.
Earlier this week, she announced Ottawa's decision to join in a bulk drug-purchasing program. Philpott said the government will take several other steps through legislation to drive down costs.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said he'd like to see some progress by next year.
The working group will address "accessibility, affordability and appropriate use" of pharmaceutical medications, he said. The pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance, which negotiates lower drug prices on behalf of public drug plans, already cuts the cost up to $500 million a year, Hoskins added.
"This (working group) allows us to go forward and look for other changes we can make and propose on the issue of accessibility," he said.
Don Davies, the federal NDP's health critic, said he was disappointed a universal drug plan was not announced. He said the bulk-buying program was a good step but doesn't ensure every Canadian gets access to the medicine they need.
He said experts have told him spending $3 billion to $5 billion on a national pharmacare program could save somewhere between $4 billion and $14 billion a year.
"It's a no brainer," he said after the meeting. "Canada is the only country that has a universal health-care system that does not have a universal drug plan. It's time we got to work on that and not just talk about it."
The Canadian Pharmacists Association agreed that a pharmacare system would save billions and welcomed the new working group.
"It's a very complex file. ... It's something they can't take lightly," said association CEO Perry Eisenschmid.
"My hope is that the working group will engage external stakeholders who understand the situation and the intricacies on that."
About 10 per cent of Canadians aren't getting access to critical medications, Eisenschmid said. Other issues stemming from the current system include families incurring financial hardships to buy drugs and people being forced to move away from their home province to ensure they get coverage for their needs.
He said drugs account for about 10 to 15 per cent of total health spending in Canada.
Bill Tholl, CEO of HealthCareCAN, said the meeting showed the ministers at all levels of government are starting to understand how to work together.
"They've set the stage to buy real change," said Tholl, whose organization represents hospitals and regional health authorities across Canada.
Other priorities health ministers identified include improving mental-health services, addressing the misuse of prescription drugs and working with indigenous leaders to address gaps in aboriginal health care.
By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press