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Letter: Canada, seize the moment to get pharmacare right

Patricia is 61 and takes medication for fairly common health issues, including arthritis, high cholesterol, a thyroid condition and chronic pain management. She retired three years ago after 35 years in a unionized job with prescription drug coverage.

In retirement, Patricia’s drug coverage is capped at $2,000 per year, so her coverage maxes out just before Thanksgiving. Since she is not a senior, she isn’t eligible for government assistance. Patricia spends the remainder of each year juggling prescriptions, deciding which ailment to treat and which to “endure.”

Rod pays over $100 out of pocket every month for his asthma inhalers and has done so his entire adult life. If Rod can’t afford to use his inhalers as prescribed, he could wind up in hospital, at far greater expense to our health-care system.

Studies have shown that even slight costs will deter many people from taking medication as prescribed.

I’ve heard hundreds of stories like Patricia’s and Rod’s. They are among the millions of people in Canada falling through the cracks of the current patchwork system of private prescription coverage with only limited public support.

The lack of universal pharmacare in Canada can impact anyone and it’s most likely to affect us in our most desperate time of need.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, the 65 Plus Plan for low-income seniors charges a six-dollar dispensing fee on prescriptions, and the Access Plan for low-income residents requires co-payments ranging from 20 to 70 per cent of total prescription costs, depending on annual income. Studies have shown that even slight costs will deter many people from taking medication as prescribed.

Earlier this year, people from every corner of Canada showed up at town hall meetings on pharmacare hosted by the Canadian Labour Congress, to share personal struggles about paying for medication. They were angry and discouraged. Their stories often left us in tears.

Why should you or someone you love be forced to skip doses, go into debt, or jeopardize their health because their prescriptions are too costly?

Failure to take medication as prescribed can greatly reduce health outcomes and put lives at risk. It also adds strain and cost to a health-care system that is already overburdened. Canada’s current patchwork system means different coverage in every province and territory, while everyone overpays for their prescriptions and pharmaceutical companies make a killing. Private insurance companies benefit by charging employers, unions and employees to administer private drug insurance plans.

Canada is the only developed country with a universal health-care program that doesn’t include universal drug coverage. It doesn’t make sense.

Imagine how much more efficient health care could be if people had coverage for the medications they need. Common conditions like asthma could be better controlled, and people with chronic and complicated conditions wouldn’t be financially burdened. They would have fewer visits to emergency rooms and doctors’ offices, and they would never have to choose between medication and groceries. Quality of life would increase significantly.

Earlier this year, the federal government took an important step with the creation of the Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare. Shortly after, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health recommended a single-payer, universal prescription drug program for Canada.

In response, the pharmaceutical and insurance companies — who together make billions from our inefficient system — began aggressively campaigning against a universal pharmacare plan that allows the government to drive down costs through bulk-buying. They want the government to simply “fill in the gaps” for people without coverage. But this will ignore all those who are being charged co-payments and deductibles, and those whose plan restrictions and limitations are failing them. Most of all, this approach ignores the incredibly inflated prices we all pay for prescription medication.

This is our moment. We have an opportunity to shape the pharmacare we want for Canada. Universal pharmacare would mean that everyone with a health card in Canada would have coverage for the prescriptions they need and a single-payer system would deliver big savings. It is up to each of us to let our provincial and federal members of Parliament know that Band-Aid solutions won’t work on a broken system. Public opinion overwhelmingly supports universal pharmacare, so let’s get it right.

Hassan Yussuff, president
Canadian Labour Congress

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