A National Pharmacare Program is the right thing, say nurses and health care professionals

by Vicki McKenna, RN

The fall 2019 federal election campaign featured a bold proposal from the Liberal federal government to finally include prescription drugs in our much-loved public health care system.

Nurses and health care professionals across Canada are among many who have called for such a program. For two decades, they have known that pharmacare would ease the suffering of millions of Canadians, and save the country billions in health care costs.

Polling conducted in January of 2019 by Environics Research shows that 84 per cent of Canadians  support such a program, and one look at the numbers makes it easy to see why:

  • More than one in five workers in Ontario do not have workplace drug coverage, and most likely don’t qualify for the Trillium low-income plan or other government coverage.
  • More than 1.5 million Ontarians who work each day could be struck down by the potentially prohibitive costs of prescription medications should they become ill or injured. 
  • Lack of prescription drug coverage is even more widespread among part-time workers – a growing share of Ontario’s labour force – and almost half of part-time immigrant workers have no coverage at all.
  • More than 42 per cent of Ontarians aged 25 to 34 years have no prescription drug coverage.

These are more than just statistics. They tell the stories of Canadians who too often have to make choices: of a mother working in retail who skips her insulin doses to put food on the table for her children instead, slowly damaging her internal organs; a man in a labour job who skips his cholesterol drugs to instead save enough money to pay for his elderly mother’s care; or of a young office worker in a temporary administrative job, skipping anti-psychotic medications to treat bipolar disease in order to be able to afford the rent.

On the front lines of health care, nurses and health care professionals see the impact on these patients, particularly on workers whose private coverage falls considerably short of what they need.

Many workplace insurance plans include costly co-payments and have an annual limit. One young Canadian, Rowan Burdge, says that despite her workplace insurance plan, her medications and supplies to control her Type 1 diabetes leave her paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to buy private insurance and pay for the supplies when the coverage runs out. Speaking publicly, Burdge says she estimates she has spent $70,000 out of pocket in the last decade, despite being employed and insured.

There will be some who want a continuation of the current patchwork of private and public coverage. This approach risks the advantages of a universal pharmacare program. The independent, non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Office has calculated that a single-payer national pharmacare plan would save a minimum of $4.2 billion a year from bulk-buying alone. That does not include the broader savings that would accrue thanks to a healthier population and a reduced number of avoidable hospitalizations. 

Canadians are compassionate, and their nurses know that a national pharmacare system will benefit everyone and our pocketbooks too.

It’s time to move forward and do the right thing.

Vicki McKenna is the provincial President of the Ontario Nurses’ Association