04/20/2018 17:11 EDT | Updated 04/21/2018 23:40 EDT

Liberal MP Says Pharmacare Support Is Critical For Re-Election Chances

"Friends, this is Liberal business."

A man walks past a sign at the federal Liberal national convention in Halifax on April 20, 2018.

HALIFAX — A Liberal MP urged convention delegates Friday to support a policy proposal to implement universal access to necessary medicines, arguing it's an issue their party should own going into next year's election, not the NDP.

Oakville MP John Oliver made the remark during a workshop focused on health and social development issues. He is sponsoring a resolution to amend the Canada Health Act to include necessary medicines under covered services. It's one of 30 resolutions that have made it to convention.

"Friends, this is Liberal business. This is ours to finish, not the NDP," Oliver said. "Let's hit the door in 2019 with pharmacare in our pockets."

Fifty years later, still unfinished business.Liberal PM John Oliver

The issue of pharmacare is one that has been "burning on our consciousness" for decades, Oliver said. He called pharmacare "unfinished business" after the Liberal government in 1966, under Lester Pearson, passed the Medical Care Act. It acknowledged the need for future legislation to include prescription medicines, he said.

"Fifty years later, still unfinished business."

Echoing NDP leader Jagmeet Singh's rhetoric about "love and courage," Oliver told the crowd, "It's our turn to fix inequity and complete the job an earlier generation tackle with so much courage and commitment."

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 11, 2018.

In a February fundraising email sent to NDP supporters after the budget, Singh criticized the government for failing to introduce legislation to implement universal pharmacare.

"The Liberals talk a good game – but when it comes time to act, they don't have the courage to make the bold changes that would make a difference in people's lives," the email read.

Pharmacare emerged from the NDP convention as a key plank in their 2019 election platform, Singh told HuffPost national pharmacare could be funded through closing a CEO stock option loophole and increased taxes on the rich.

Warning of 'absurd' numbers from Fraser Institute

Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson also spoke in support of the resolution, titled "Implementing universal access to necessary medicines."

The former emergency room doctor warned delegates that criticism will come from all directions.

"We are going to get a lot of pushback from the different industry players," he said. "We're going to get pushback from groups like the Fraser Institute coming up with all sorts of absurd numbers that the Canadian taxpayer will have to pay."

Janet Hazelton, a registered nurse from Nova Scotia for more than 30 years, said it's common to see people not fill prescriptions for necessary medicine because they're unable to pay for them. Those people will likely return to the hospital with worsened conditions, adding strain to the health care system, she said.

We are going to get a lot of pushback from the different industry players.Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson

Eyolfson is part of a parliamentary health committee that tabled a long-awaited pharmacare report this week. After two years of study, it recommended amending the Canada Health Act to make prescription drugs dispensed outside of hospitals an insured service.

"Such an approach would also ensure that all Canadians have equitable and affordable access to life saving prescription drugs. In short, it will save money and lives," the report read.

Eyolfson told delegates the calculations in the parliamentary report don't include estimated savings from people who won't have to return to hospitals because of unfilled prescriptions.Those savings are likely between $5-9 billion, he said.

Watch: Pharmacare expansion will take time, Morneau says

Last year, a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer outlined that a national pharmacare program would save more than $4.2 billion annually.

The enthusiasm among delegates on the issue, however, doesn't match sentiments the finance minister has previously shared about pharmacare.

The federal government announced in its federal budget the creation of an advisory council, chaired by former Ontario health minister Dr. Eric Hoskins, to explore the implementation of pharmacare.

Morneau, who's a fan of a private-public pharmacare model, cautioned against raising expectations that a potential expanded pharmacare model will replace Canadians' existing public and private drug plans.

But one delegate in Halifax expressed frustration at decades of politicians promising universal access to necessary medicines and delivering no action.

"The time is now," said a woman, during the workshop where the Oliver's resolution was discussed.

"We've discussed it, studied it, and we haven't implemented it. We've got a majority. I want this as a Health Act issue."

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