Parliament votes down an opportunity to save billions and improve health outcomes

In Canada, if you cut your finger, you go to a doctor, get treated, and never see a bill. But if you walk into a doctor’s office and get diagnosed with an ailment that requires prescription medication, you have to pay out of pocket. That doesn’t make any sense, but only illustrates one way in which a universal pharmacare program would benefit Canadians.   A late September report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) bolstered the argument that a National Pharmacare Program would save Canadians billions of dollars a year while confirming what policy experts have been saying for years.

Canada is alone as the only major country with a universal health care system that does not provide drug insurance for its citizens. While a recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that more than 90 percent of Canadians support the concept of universal pharmacare, a vote in the House of Commons this week confirmed that a majority of parliamentarians do not.  The vote came after the PBO released its report, so it’s not as if MPs weren’t armed with the best available information.

What the PBO report told parliamentarians was that the cost for a National Pharmacare Program would cost billions less than what Canadians already pay for prescriptions.  What is implied, however, is that the savings could be even greater.  That’s because the federal and provincial governments already spend a lot buying drugs outright, or making co-payments as part of health care plans. Add in the savings from true bulk buying as well as the ballooning costs of contributing to health plans for employers and it’s easy to see where all the savings could come from.

Perhaps the greatest argument in favour of universal pharmacare is that it will allow more people to access the drugs they need.  This will lead to better health outcomes and lower the cost of delivering health care. Too many people in Canada cannot afford their prescriptions and this is the single best way to address that problem.  At the same time it will save us money.  The PBO report found that a national pharmacare plan would result in a net savings of $4.2 billion per year for Canadians. It’s not as if we aren’t spending money right now, so the real question is whether we want to pay $24.6 billion overall with millions uninsured or $19 billion overall with coverage for every single Canadian. 

That is essentially what New Democrats asked parliament to support when they put forward a motion calling on the government to commence negotiations with the provinces in order to implement a universal pharmacare program.  Despite the mountain of evidence that show the benefit of such a program, including the fact that Canada is the lone outlier among countries with a universal health care system, the government lined up to defeat the motion. 

Universal pharmacare will save Canadians billions, while extending coverage to every single citizen. It will eliminate out-of-pocket costs for families and offer significant savings for employers. It will also mean long-term savings for our public health care system when those who currently can’t afford to fill prescriptions achieve improved health outcomes.  With the recent release of the PBO’s report, it’s clearer than ever that a national pharmacare is not only good for the health of Canadians, but our economy as well. It’s unfortunate that more MPs didn’t see it that way.