Budget 2018 lays groundwork for possible national pharmacare program
This week, the Trudeau government’s 2018 budget included the creation of an advisory council for a national pharmacare program, prompting the repetition of several misleading facts in the media about access to medication within Canada and in other countries with universal health care.
Yes, making sure Canadians can access necessary prescription medication is important. However, this does not necessitate a federally-funded national pharmacare program. Nor would doing so ensure that those Canadians who need assistance most will receive it.
Here’s the reality. Proponents of national pharamcare base their argument on two false premises. The first is that other countries with universal health care include prescription pharmaceuticals as part of their basic package of benefits. While this is true, it’s only half the story.
Only some countries (such as the United Kingdom and Australia) rely on government-run programs to provide coverage for drugs. Other (and some would argue, more successful) countries with universal health care such as Switzerland and the Netherlands provide universal access for all health-care services (including pharmaceuticals) through private insurers.
In fact, most countries with universal health care even expect patients to share in the cost of treatment—whether it be surgical or pharmaceutical. Therefore it’s inappropriate, and potentially misleading, to argue repeatedly that other countries offer coverage for pharmaceuticals. They certainly do—however, they also do universal health care much differently than Canada.
The second premise is the false notion that Canadians are not already covered by government programs for prescription pharmaceuticals. While it’s true that provinces chose to cover people in different ways, every provincial government already has some program to assist vulnerable Canadians with the costs of medication.
And yet, a recent study estimated that roughly one of every 12 Canadians (8.2 per cent) who required a prescription had difficulty paying for it. If this is accurate, we must consider these two key questions.
If provincial governments already do a poor job of helping these Canadians with existing programs, why should we believe that a larger (and likely less precise) federally-run program would do any better?
And given our limited resources, shouldn’t governments work harder to identify and assist Canadians who need help most, rather than subsidize the entire population—including wealthy Canadians who can either afford their prescriptions or own generous private insurance plans?
While it’s vitally important to improve access to medications for vulnerable populations in Canada, let’s not rush into a plan that will subsidize those who don’t need help with resources meant for those who do.