Will all Canadians enjoy prescription drug coverage soon?

The federal New Democratic Party has called for Canada’s public health care plan to be expanded to cover the cost of pharmaceutical drugs. If the ruling Liberal government doesn’t provide this extended coverage, the NDP promises to do so if it wins the next election in 2019.

While I applaud this NDP initiative, I have to add that it’s jolly well about time. The party should have made the expansion of medicare a top priority a long time ago. And not just to cover pharmacare, but to encompass dental, vision, and other vital health needs as well. Apart from the United States, that’s what all other major countries did when they first inaugurated public health care for their citizens.

When Tommy Douglas pioneered public health care in Saskatchewan 56 years ago, he limited it to the services of physicians and hospitals. He would have preferred to make the coverage all-inclusive, but he didn’t dare. The massive opposition to his legislation by the medical profession, the Liberal and Conservative parties, and the media was so formidable that it was touch-and-go for a while whether even medical and hospital services could be achieved.

I speak from experience. I spent a few months in Saskatchewan in 1962 helping the NDP government and its supporters beat back the sweeping tide of anti-medicare propaganda they had to contend with. Fortunately – not just for the people of Saskatchewan, but for all Canadians – Tommy’s vision became a reality.

But Tommy always regarded his two-pronged approach as merely the first steps toward the attainment of a consummate public health care system in Canada. He anticipated that the costs of prescription drugs, as well as dental and vision care, would also eventually be covered. Sadly, he died with these additional services still not implemented.

Will pharmaceuticals, at least and at last, be covered soon? The federal NDP’s pledge makes it a more hopeful prospect, but the powerful foes of all-inclusive medicare can’t be counted out yet. Already they are stoking fears that pharmacare is much too expensive for the current or any future federal government to contemplate.

Three factors, however, may be decisive in swaying political and public opinion in favour of pharmacare.

1. The rising cost of employers’ private drug plans is significantly lowering business opposition.

2. An authoritative research study conducted six years ago by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that pharmacare would actually save Canadians and their governments as much as $10 billion a year. This would be the outcome of deploying government bulk purchasing power as well as sharply reducing the costs of treating the many thousands stricken by their inability to afford to fill prescriptions. This study was praised by Marcia Angell, M.D., former editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, who called it “a well-done analysis that clearly shows that such a universal publicly-funded prescription drug plan would not only be better for Canadians, but cheaper.”

3. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has already set the stage for a nation-wide adoption of pharmacare by providing public drug care to the province’s four million children and adults under the age of 25. It won’t take long, even without federal inception, for mounting public pressure to force other provinces to follow Ontario’s example. An extension of Wynne’s partial program to provide full coverage to people of all ages all over the country would then slowly but surely ensue.

As improbable as it may seem, just as Tommy Douglas is renowned as the “Father of Medicare” in Canada, Kathleen Wynne could eventually be acclaimed as the “Mother of Pharmacare.”

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