08/07/2013 12:02 EDT | Updated 10/07/2013 05:12 EDT

No More Excuses Mr. Harper, We Need a Pharmacare Strategy - Stat!

It's been eight years since Prime Minister Paul Martin and all premiers agreed to deliver a National Pharmaceuticals Strategy -- one of nine objectives of the 2004 Health Accord -- which at $41.2 billion was to be fully funded for ten years.

Under this strategy, the federal and British Columbian health minister co-chaired the development of a comprehensive plan that would ensure patients had access to the prescription drugs they needed, without suffering financial hardship in the process.

However, the plan was about more than just low-cost drug coverage. It sought to accelerate access to breakthrough drugs which could save lives and end suffering. It focused on strengthening the drug approval and post-approval monitoring process, so that every Canadian could feel more confident that the prescription drugs they relied on were safe. It looked to instill best prescribing practices, including e-prescription and e-health record use for health care professionals, to prevent damaging drug interactions for Canadians juggling multiple prescriptions.

Unfortunately, when the Harper government -- which has consistently treated collaboration with the provinces and territories as both obscene and objectionable -- came to power, it walked away from the pharmaceuticals strategy.

As a result, instead of being eight years in on making prescription drugs more accessible, and safer, millions in our country -- as many as one in ten Canadians -- cannot afford the medication they need. This has negative impacts on patient well-being and recovery as well as eventual costs to our acute care system.

I was at a recent conference in Ottawa, where researchers and experts from across Canada looked at the costs, benefits, challenges, and complexities of designing and implementing a new national plan on prescription drugs.

Based on evidence and comparisons of national pharmacare plans in other industrialized nations with some form of public health care system, Canada fared badly.

The evidence presented also showed that a single payer, single negotiator system, such as New Zealand's yields excellent results in terms of cost-containment, while providing universal coverage that reimbursed 80 per cent of drug costs to patients.

The co-payments in New Zealand per patient were the lowest of the ten industrialised countries studied, well below the Canadian average cost of $1,000 per capita. Indeed, it is estimated by University of British Columbia's Dr. Steve Morgan that a model like the one in place in New Zealand could save Canada $14 billion a year which could arguably be re-invested into other areas of the health care system such as Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Mental Health, Health Human Resources, and full shifts to primary-care-community models.

In other words, those savings could fund the transformative changes needed to sustain a 21st century health care system.

There is, as the Health Council of Canada points out, a need for the federal government to play a cohesive and collaborative leadership role in ensuring that there is a National Pharmaceutical Strategy.

The current federal government cannot continue to hide behind the "jurisdictional" excuse.

This role is broadly supported by the public. According to a recent EKOS survey, 73 per cent of the population support a federally-led pharmacare strategy.

The need for a national plan on prescription drugs has grown, rather than diminished since 2004. If political leaders back then were able to summon the will and leadership needed to negotiate a national plan in the best interests of the people of Canada, so can and so should the current prime minister.

The Hon. Dr. Hedy Fry, is the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre and federal Liberal health critic. Before entering politics she practiced medicine in Vancouver for 20 years.