A recent CBC the fifth estate report featured the current high cost of prescription drugs in Canada. A growing number of advocates (including CARP) would like to see a national drug program become a reality.

Canada is the only country in the world that has a universal health care system that doesn’t include universal drug coverage. We are among the highest spenders in the OECD.

Related: The high costs of health care

the fifth estate documented how New Zealand negotiates brand name drug prices that are about 40% lower, and generic drug prices that are 90% lower than Canadian prices because they buy medications as a country, negotiating pricing and ensuring stable supplies.

Prescription drug coverage in Canada varies widely depending on where you live, your health status, your income, and your age. Right now, each province has its own pharmacare program and there is no consistency. A universal prescription drug plan could not only reduce total spending, it would also cover everyone at an affordable price.

Universal National Drug Program in Canada

Prescriptions have become unaffordable for some

The Canadian Medical Association states that 10% of Canadians say they can’t afford to take their medications as prescribed. They are splitting their pills, cutting back on prescriptions, and many even stop taking them entirely because of the cost.

This ends up costing the country in the long run.

Studies in the U.S. suggest that providing prescription medications for free increases the chance that patients will actually take their meds as prescribed, which in the long run improves health and reduces demand on the health care system.

So, what’s the delay?

A national pharmacare program was originally recommended in 1964 – two years before the national Medical Care Act was adopted. It was brought up again in the 2002 Romanow Commission on how to modernize health coverage.

Why hasn’t it been implemented yet?

The main arguments against a universal drug program are:

  • Most Canadians have health insurance privately or through their employer.
  • A lot of provinces have legislation to cover the poor and the elderly.
  • None of us want to pay more taxes.
  • It’s just not affordable.

But, according to the Canadian Medical Association, the total cost of a national pharmacare program would actually be less than what is currently being spent by public and private drug plans and patient payments combined.

To make a universal national drug program, Canada would have to decide exactly how the coverage would work.

  • How much would we pay (based on negotiations with the manufacturers)?
  • What drugs would be covered?
  • What percentage of the cost would be borne by the government?
  • Will the cost of pharmaceuticals come out of the overall health care budget?

Perhaps that’s why it’s not officially on the federal government’s agenda of priorities.

Final thoughts

Canada currently has one of the most expensive systems for purchasing prescription drugs in the world. A better deal could be made with a bulk purchasing system instead of every province buying drugs for their plans separately.

It would mean leveraging our buying power to help contain drug costs, ensure stable supplies, and improve the future health outcome of our population.

The sustainability of our health care system may depend on it.

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5 Comments

  1. Hans W on January 25, 2017 at 7:32 am

    Interesting article. Since insurance companies do not want to lose their income source, why don’t the Feds buy the drugs for US? The provinces can then access this pool. Current system of private insurance plans stays in place and we as consumers pay less.

  2. Dave on January 25, 2017 at 9:51 am

    If we get a Universal Drug Plan, this will only cause Canadians to use more drugs which is, for the most part, detrimental to good health. Our current medical culture is continually pushing more and more drugs to the point that many patients have become ” prescription junkies”. The big drug company motive is profit oriented, doing their utmost to convince us that the Drug Route is the best and easiest way to good physical and mental health. Good all fashioned exercise, genuine friendship, and a spiritual life will go a long way in providing human beings with a meaningful and happy life.

    • Robin on January 25, 2017 at 11:57 am

      Hey Doug: exercise, healthy eating, good and realtionships don’t help when chronic diseases strike. I recently underwent chemo for lymphoma. All of the drugs associated directly with the chemotherapy were covered by Alberta Healthcare, however, I needed a number of supporting medications that were not covered, including one costing over $1000 per chemo session. As an independent consultant, I had no medical benefits. When I inquired about Blue Cross coverage I discovered there was a three month waiting period where I was required to pay premiums but had no coverage. This three month period was the bulk of the time I was receiving chemo and needing the supplemental medications. A universal drug plan or even reduced costs for drugs via government procurement plans would go a long way to assist those who are vulnerable in our society.

  3. Wes Philips on January 25, 2017 at 11:28 am

    We should all push for the kind of system that New Zealand has. We can all benefit from it. CARP has been doing a great job in championing seniors’ issues and they should be supported by non-seniors as well to get this affordable drug program.

  4. Kathy on November 29, 2017 at 8:07 am

    Many people do not have drug plans through their employer, if they get laid off or retire the conversion plans have caps of $2000 a year. New plans do not cover prexisting conditions. We could have a $30 deductible to stop people just picking up a prescription and wasting it. I have also seen people who are off on disability after 2 years kicked off the extended health part of the group plan exactly when they need it.

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