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We Can Close The Class Divide In Health Care With Universal Pharmacare

05/23/2017 02:23 EDT | Updated 05/23/2017 02:23 EDT

As I cross Canada, the state of Canadian health care comes up again and again. I wasn't surprised to hear stories about the lack of family doctors, long wait times and growing gaps in rural areas. These are manifestations of the refusal of the federal government to pay their fair share. But what has stayed with me are the stories of people who are falling on the wrong side of the growing Canadian class and health divide. They are people without the benefit of private plans to cover the cost of their medicine or the financial means to address serious dental issues. For this reason New Democrats need to fight for an inclusive vision of 21st century health care.

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There are many steps needed to modernize public health but let's start with pharmacare. It has been part of the unfinished business of Canadian Medicare since the days of Tommy Douglas. The need for a pharmacare system was identified in the 1964 Hall Commission and repeated in the 2002 Romanow Report. Numerous studies before and since have been clear: pharmacare won't just make Canadians healthier, it will ensure Canadians aren't getting ripped off by big pharmaceutical companies.

Canada has the second-highest drug costs in the world after the United States, and drugs represent the fastest growing category of health expenditure. The Trudeau government's trade deal with Europe will only add to the problem. For example, in New Zealand, a year's supply of name-brand cholesterol drug costs you $15 out of pocket. Here in Canada, a year's worth is $811 for the exact same product. Tragically, this means that people who are just scraping by will take less medicine than they need, sometimes with disastrous results.

And it's not the rich in Canada who are getting dinged with these costs. Those making $100,000 a year and more tend to have private pharmacare plans while the new working class, which includes many young professionals working endless contact jobs, are on the hook for any medicines required. This class divide is leading to a growing inequity in Canadian health. We can do better. We are a nation that looks out for one another.

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Pharmacare is a health issue, a class issue and an issue of fairness. I will work with the provinces and territories to create a flexible, portable plan, based on four pillars: universal access to approved drugs, a fair distribution of the costs, a safe and appropriate prescription process that puts patients' needs first, and a commitment for getting maximum value for money. The road map for moving forward was laid out in the recent Pharmacare 2020 report.

The report highlights the importance of a pre-determined annual budget to control costs, with the federal government contributing 25 per cent. There would be the need for stakeholder input (provinces, doctors, patients, etc.) to create a national formulary (i.e. the list of covered medicines) based on health, scientific and cost assessments. There would also be the ability to maintain private insurance for medicines not listed in the national formulary. My colleague Don Davies has done excellent work on this file.

Having studied this report, my team concurs with a 2015 estimate placing initial cost to the federal government at just under $1 billion. The savings to the private sector by having universal drug coverage could be over $10 billion. A small change in the tax code could be used to recover the public investment.

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There has been a great deal of positive discussion in the public about how to think about health more broadly in Canada. There are excellent initiatives to improve diet, exercise and ending smoking. But what isn't being talked about the health pressures on the growing numbers of the new working class. When I talk with people burdened down with student debt and unable to find secure employment and savings, the stress effect on their health is obvious. This is why the discussion of pharmacare and a subsequent commitment to dental care are so important. Lack of access to medicines and proper dental care are adding to the health burden on an already stressed generation.

Mr. Trudeau was extremely successful in running his last campaign based on vague but aspirational messages. People trusted that he would follow through. But without concrete commitments to make change real, aspirational talk evaporates in the cold light once the election is over. On issues of health care and economy, Canadians are now being stuck with the same old politics. The NDP leadership race provides our party with a chance to show the concrete steps we will take to make a real difference in the lives of Canadians. A credible plan for national pharmacare must be part of the commitment to show Canadians we really do have their back.

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