You're sitting there waiting as the doctor's pen is poised above the prescription pad. He pauses a second, looks up, and asks: Do you have private insurance?
Thus the game begins, and your response to that innocent query contains the answer to where Canada's publicly funded health system is heading. Without being too dramatic, the sustainability and comprehensiveness of our universal healthcare system relies on governments' collective response to a simple question: Who will pay for what?
If your doctor makes different decisions based on who is paying for the drug you'll swallow, he's perhaps unaware of how he's inserted himself into Canada's raging "public vs. private" healthcare debate.
On one side of that debate are those such as the former president of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. Anne Doig who called for more federal involvement in how our provincial health systems are managed. Her comments received a swift rebuke from the folks down at the Fraser Institute, who said that reforming Canada's monopolistic universal health system is like rearranging the Titanic's deck chairs.
Like many proponents of private health care, the Fraser Institute claims the "economics" problem of Canada's health system is due to a government monopoly over how medical care is funded and allocated. They argue that consumers need to be 'sharing' the cost of health care to make it sustainable. This means more money directly from your pocket. But how would that actually work?
The closest thing we've got to a system of public/private sharing of health care costs in Canada is around pharmaceuticals, where about 55 per cent of our $30 billion annual prescription drug market is paid out of private insurance, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Information. Which is to say, many Canadians are covered for pharmaceuticals through their employment-based drug plans so it's worth taking a closer look to see how that's working.
Private drug insurance plans costly and ineffcient
When you put the private drug plans under the microscope, instead of seeing efficiency and cost effectiveness in prescribing -- compared to public drug plans -- you often find the opposite. A few years ago my colleague Dr. Joel Lexchin and I published an analysis of the top 10 most expensive drugs paid for by private drug plans in Canada and we found that the plans were spending about 25 per cent more than they needed to, compared to a basket of equally effective, but less expensive medications.
The main difference between public and private plans is that private drug plans generally don't restrict what they pay for. Public plans do and usually those decisions come down to issues of safety and comparative cost effectiveness. For example, some public drug plans in Canada appropriately restrict the use of a very new diabetes drug called Januvia which, at about $2.80 per pill, is no more effective than the cheaper, older metformin, which sells for about 6 cents per pill. Januvia also comes with warnings of acute pancreatitis which can be fatal.
Another restricted drug is the sister drug to Vioxx, the pain medication Celebrex, which is nearly three times the price of equivalent generic pain relievers. The blood pressure-lowering drug Diovan is at the top of the charts in private plans, and at about $1.20 per pill, there is no evidence that it is more effective or safer than generic Ramipril which costs about 20 cents per pill.
In fact, according to a recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal if drugs in the same class as Diovan (drugs known as ARBs) had been restricted by drug plans in favour of drugs like Ramipril (a class of drugs known as ACE-Inhibitors) then the Canadian health system would have saved more than $77 million in 2006 without any adverse effects on cardiovascular health.
Your private plan automatically covers drugs like Celebrex, Januvia and Diovan, no questions asked. Me? I'm glad that public drug plans appropriately keep coverage of those drugs limited to only those people who need them.
Escalating drug plan costs mean fewer employee wage increases
It's clear what is going on here: employees who get private, and unrestricted drug coverage are facing escalating costs. According to the Canadian Institute of Health Information, private plans are growing at about twice the rate of public drug plans. Private drug plans are often managed by insurers who get paid as a percentage of the cost of the scripts they process, so there is no incentive to seek 'value-for-money' arrangements. In the end, employers absorb those rising costs while denying the workers raises.
Don't believe me? Ask any unionized teacher in B.C. who just voted for a strike mandate how happy they are with being offered zero wage increases. Certainly they could make a better argument for increased wages if they were willing to forego inefficient drug benefits coverage
At the end of the day, people might say: "I don't care: I want to have access to whatever drug my doctor prescribes (and my private insurance pays for)."
Automatically covering whatever the doctor prescribes is a great idea if Canada's doctors were well-versed in the comparative costs, safety and effectiveness profiles of the various drugs on the market but they're not. Private insurance programs in Canada don't manage the formulary -- the basket of products worthy of coverage -- and have no real interest in promoting coverage of the most effective, affordable and safest drugs.
So at the end of the day, do we want more of that? Do we really want to trust more of our healthcare system to private operators which groups like the Fraser Institute are suggesting? Do we want less public involvement or more in our decision-making?
Those are a few questions worth pondering the next time you're facing your doctor poised to write that new prescription.
Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a comprehensive and non-partisan online resource designed to help journalists covering health policy issues in Canada.