Canada is the only country in the world with a universal public health care system that doesn’t cover prescription medication. The World Health Organization has recognized that access to medication is a human right.
Currently, 1 in 4 households in Canada can’t afford their medications. One million Canadians are having to choose between putting food on the table and buying the medication they need. When people skip their medication because they can’t afford it, they end up getting sicker. They visit the doctor and the hospital more often, taking up limited resources in our health care system.
Canada’s current patchwork of drug coverage leaves millions of Canadians falling through the cracks. Even people with drug plans often have to pay costly deductibles and copayments.
Canada pays the third highest prices in the world for prescription medications. Spending on medication is continuing to rise. We currently spend more on medications than we do on doctors.
We need a national pharmacare program to ensure everyone in Canada can access the medications they need. This program must be public, universal, comprehensive, accessible and portable. Pharmacare would save money and save lives. The government would as much as $11 billion per year.
The issue in detail
About 70% of Canadians rely on private insurance plans provided through their employers. There are over 100 000 private drug plans across the country. They all provide different levels of coverage. Workers often pay for their drug coverage in the form of lower wages. If people lose their jobs, change jobs or retire, they often lose their drug coverage.
Over 20% of the population relies on public drug plans. There are over 100 provincial, territorial and federal drug plans across the country, and they all provide different levels of coverage. Most public drug plans cover certain populations such as seniors or people on social assistance. The provinces and territories all cover different medications, which leaves access to some medications dependent on where you live. For example, the same cancer medication costs $0 in Nunavut, $3,000 in BC and $20,000 in PEI.
Having a drug plan doesn’t mean that you are adequately covered. Both private and public drug plans often have high deductibles and co-payments. Drug plans also often limit the amount that people can claim per month or per year. These out-of-pocket expenses can make medications unaffordable.
Among OECD countries, Canada pays some of the very highest prices for prescription medications. We could significantly lower these prices through bulk buying. By negotiating drug prices for the country as a whole, we’d have much better bargaining power.
Public, universal pharmacare could save over $11 billion per year. Employers would benefit by not having to cover employees’ drug plans. Households would benefit by not having to pay out-of-pocket for medications. Pharmacare would be good for people’s health and good for business. It would save money and save lives.
Big Pharma and the insurance industry have been lobbying the government to adopt a “fill the gaps” approach to pharmacare. This would maintain the thousands of drug plans that are currently in place and simply add insurance for those who lack coverage. However, it wouldn’t ensure that everyone has adequate coverage and it wouldn’t enable big price reductions through bulk buying. Only public, universal pharmacare would do this.
Like other health care services, access to medication should be based on need, not on people’s ability to pay. Canada needs universal, public pharmacare now.
- June 2019: The Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare released its Final Report. It called for a universal, public pharmacare program that would cover medications in the same way as doctors and hospitals.
- March 2019: The Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare released an Interim Report that recommended:
- Creating a national drug agency
- Developing a comprehensive, evidence-based national formulary (a list of medications that are covered by public insurance)
- Investing in drug data and information technology (IT) systems.
- March 2019: In Budget 2019, the federal government allocated $35 million over four years to establish a Canadian Drug Agency Transition Office. The new drug agency would assess the effectiveness of new medications, negotiate the prices of medications, and recommend medications to include in a national pharmacare program.
- April 2018: The Standing Committee on Health presented a report to the House of Commons recommending that Canada adopt a universal, public pharmacare program.
- February 2018: As part of Budget 2018, the federal government appointed an Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare to make recommendations on how to implement a national pharmacare program.
- September 2017: The Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report showing that a universal, public pharmacare program could save Canadians $4.2 billion, based on conservative estimates.
The CHC is calling for:
- A public, universal pharmacare program that covers medication in the same way as doctors and hospitals.
- Get informed by reading the Pharmacare Consensus Principles.
- Listen to this podcast.
- Take part in the Canadian Labour Congress’ campaign for universal, public pharmacare.
Pharmacare Consensus Principles (2018)
Saving money with a National Public Drug Plan (Canadian Health Coalition, 2019)
Why Canada needs universal public pharmacare (Canadian Health Coalition, 2019)
The economic benefits of universal public pharmacare (Canadian Health Coalition, 2019)
Mythbuster: A National Public Drug Plan (Canadian Health Coalition, 2017)
Policy and Research Documents
The Economic Case for Universal, Public Pharmacare (Keith Newman for Canadian Health Coalition, 2019)
CHC Submission to the Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare (Canadian Health Coalition, 2018)
Videos from the CHC policy conference “A Prescription for Equity” (Canadian Health Coalition, 2017)
CHC Policy Brief: A National Drug Plan For All (Canadian Health Coalition, 2016)
Down the Drain: How Canada Has Wasted $62 Billion Health Care Dollars without Pharmacare (Hugh MacKenzie for CFNU, 2016)
A Roadmap to a Rational Pharmacare Policy (Dr. Marc-André Gagnon for CFNU, 2014)
The Economic Case for Universal Pharmacare (Dr. Marc-André Gagnon and Guillaume Hébert for CCPA and INRS, 2010)
Life Before Pharmacare (CHC and CCPA, 2008)