Commons committee recommends national pharmacare program

The House of Commons’ standing committee on health is recommending the creation of a universal, single public payer prescription drug coverage program for all Canadians.

“The committee believes that the best approach for the creation of such a program is through the expansion of the Canada Health Act to include prescription drugs dispensed outside of hospitals as an insured service,” the committee, chaired by MP Bill Casey, stated in a report released on Wednesday.

“The committee also believes that the program should be cost-shared between federal, provincial and territorial governments. The program would also include the development of a national voluntary prescription drug formulary through collaboration between federal, provincial and territorial governments, health-care providers, patients and Indigenous communities that would help guide reimbursement decisions and promote consistency in drug coverage listing decisions across the country.”

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In issuing the report, the committee acknowledged governments would be taking on billions in drug costs currently borne by the private sector. However, referring to estimates from the federal parliamentary budget officer, the committee suggested a universal plan could realize $4.2 billion in savings.

“To realize the $4.2 billion in savings that universal drug coverage will provide, it is necessary to expand and build capacity within the [Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technology in Health] and the [pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance] to support the development of a pan-Canadian formulary and more robust price negotiations,” it said in the report.

In responding to the report, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association raised its concerns about the heavy price tag. Calling it an expensive solution to the issue of access to drugs, Stephen Frank, president and chief executive officer of the CLHIA, suggested the committee’s approach would reduce the quality of health benefits plans available to Canadians. “It’s clear that there is alignment around the need for change,” said Frank.

“Any reform, however, needs to be done in a way that protects taxpayers and doesn’t put Canadians’ health plans at risk.”

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For his part, Casey suggested the current system isn’t working given what he said is the high cost of drugs in Canada in comparison to other countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “It’s a very erratic system and, as a result, we pay more for pharmaceuticals than 26 other OECD countries,” The Canadian Press quoted him as saying.