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Health care experts weigh in on the need for prescription drug coverage

Nurses, physicians and other health professionals have first-hand knowledge of the human cost of not having universal prescription drug coverage in Canada. Every day, they see the harm that comes from patients not being able to afford the medications they need.


The president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU), Linda Silas, remembers hearing from one nurse about a family that couldn’t afford the inhalers their child needed for asthma. The nurse gave them samples to get them by until their next appointment, but making it to that appointment meant missing a day’s pay, so the family didn’t get more samples. The child’s asthma got worse, resulting in a days-long stay in hospital.


“Lack of drug coverage hurts patients and it hurts the entire health care system,” says Silas. “For this child, not being able to afford inhalers costing approximately $70 for three months’ treatment led to a stay in hospital costing about $1,000 a day.”


This story is not unusual — one in 10 Canadians cannot afford to fill their prescriptions. “If you are a young worker, if you are a lower-income family, you are especially vulnerable,” she says. “It shouldn’t be this way. We are the only country with a universal public health care system that does not provide universal coverage for prescription medicines.”


The CFNU and other national organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress, are intensifying their calls for a national, universal prescription drug plan for all Canadians, to complete what is often called “the unfinished business of Medicare.”


Our country’s complex, patchwork system of prescription drug funding, with widely varying levels of public and private insurance coverage, means there is uneven access to prescription drugs. Beyond the inequities, this system is inefficient and expensive; Canada has the second-highest prescription drug costs in the world after the United States.


“We need federal leadership to implement pharmacare, and we need action now,” says the CFNU president. “With a universal plan, national bulk buying to lower drug prices and one evidence-based drug formulary for the whole country, we can save billions of dollars a year.” Numerous studies have put the economics in perspective, estimating that an annual investment of $1 billion by the federal government will mean Canadians save $7.3 billion a year on the medications they need.


Dr. Danyaal Raza is a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and the board chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, another organization advocating for a universal prescription drug plan. Dr. Raza points out that advances in prescription medications make it possible for people with chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes to live healthier lives. These benefits may be lost, he says, if people face difficult choices because of finances.


“When I prescribe a medication to treat diabetes and keep a patient’s sugars under control, I shudder to think they may have to buy cheaper, less healthy food to afford what’s been written on the prescription pad,” Dr. Raza says. “What difference are we making in people’s health if we are asking them to sacrifice food in order to afford medication?” “It’s not every day in public policy that we’re presented with a program that includes more people and saves money at the same time,” he adds.


“The federal government needs to hear from individual Canadians, labour organizations, non-governmental organizations and private-sector employers that enough is enough — Medicare has been incomplete for decades, and prescription drugs have been a big missing piece.”

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