I have been passionate about national pharmacare and breaking down barriers to health care since entering medical school 30 years ago. Since becoming Ontario's Minister of Health, I have been determined to put pharmacare back on the national agenda.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most important steps we can take to rededicate ourselves to the principle of universal access to health care. And it’s why I put the issue of national pharmacare on the front burner at the meeting with my provincial, territorial, and federal colleagues earlier this fall.
Saskatchewan blazed a path forward for public health insurance in the 1950s, and the rest of our country had no choice but to take notice. This led to the formation of a Royal Commission, and after years of engaging the public it came back with the underpinnings for our most revered national symbol: medicare.
Even in 1964, as medical advances were just starting to take shape, the Commission strongly recommended public insurance for prescription drugs. Regrettably, this suggestion was never taken up, and it is a gap in universal coverage that too many Canadians live in 50 years later.
As happened with the birth of medicare, we will need collective leadership to see pharmacare move past a pipe dream. As citizens, we believe that every person must have access to health care regardless of their ability to pay. There may simply be no more Canadian a value. This also means that no Canadian should have to choose between putting food on the table or filling their latest prescription.
As a public health doctor, I’ve had the privilege of working for two decades in a community clinic that serves a population struggling with poverty, unemployment and housing challenges. Too often I have treated patients who I knew were having trouble affording the essential medications I would prescribe. This can certainly lead to uneven health outcomes, and with one-in-10 Canadians unable to afford the medication they need, this is a gap in our health care system that we no longer can afford to ignore.
While a pharmacare program would lessen such inequalities across our country, it also makes good economic sense. There is now a surfeit of evidence for significant cost-savings. Recent reports from the Canadian Federation of Nurses and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives peg those savings at around $11 billion each year.
How? A national pharmacare program would allow the federal government, along with the provinces and territories, to buy medication in bulk. This would help lower the prices of medication and give us all more leverage as we negotiate drug prices with unified purchasing power.
Currently, we pay more for medications than citizens in almost any other Western nation. Put another way, it’s akin to Canadians paying $60 dollars for a cup of coffee at Tim Horton’s when comparing international prices. This is a serious value gap, and it also puts us at odds with our peers: Canada remains the only industrialized country with universal health insurance but no national pharmacare strategy for its citizens.
The provinces and territories have already demonstrated that we can help close the gap to life-saving medications by negotiating together through the Pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance, which will now have its headquarters here in Ontario. We have started to see substantial savings, but there is more we can do as a country.
I was encouraged by federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose’s commitment after raising the need for a national pharmacare program, and Ontario has been asked to lead these discussions. Success will hinge not just on continuing the conversation, but political courage. After all, such a program will require leadership from both the federal and provincial/territorial levels. We will need to work together, in partnership, to embrace this idea whose time has come.
It took political will in a province to write the first chapter of medicare. I believe the momentum is building across the country for the next chapter: national pharmacare. And I’m confident it’s a chapter we can write together.
- Dr. Eric Hoskins is Ontario’s Minister of Health and Long-Term Care