OP-ED Pharmacare saves money

by James Hutt

Provincial co-ordinator, Nova Scotia Health Coalition


Bill Swan was first diagnosed with severe asthma at age 2. Since then, he has persistently managed his condition by avoiding pets and environments with mold or mildews, through exercise and, of course, medication.

Bill's normal regime - just for his asthma - includes daily inhalations of four different drugs (five if he has to use his rescue medication), two pills, an expectorant and a special supplement. Yet Bill is quite sure that without a consistent drug regime, there is little chance he'd "still be around." Compared to a young healthy person, he is lucky to have 50 per cent lung capacity on a good day, even with all the drugs he takes or inhales daily.

His insurance covers 80 per cent of the medication. Even still, the total insurance for his family and his co-pay usually exceeds $4,000 per year.

But recently, Bill added Xolair™ to his regime. This is a new class of drug; a mono-clonal antibody that is designed to stop the allergic cascade before it starts. It is currently $18,000 per year, so his out-of-pocket for this ONE drug approaches $4,000 per year on its own. And it's necessary - Bill is at the top end of the dosing guidelines for his current regime, and his normal last chance medication,prednisone, no longer works for him.

Bill is neither elderly nor poor. He is one of the few people with a pre-existing condition that was lucky enough to join a group plan. However, it is not a great plan and he still has to pay $8,000-$10,000 out of pocket just to ensure access to health care necessary for his condition.

Canada is the only OECD country with a universal health care system that does not include pharmaceuticals. Instead of universal coverage like in other countries, Canada has a patchwork system of employer and last-resort government programs that leaves one in four Canadians with no drug coverage at all.

Last year, one in 10 patients didn't fill prescriptions simply because of the cost. When patients can't afford the medicine they need, they go without, getting worse until they need to be hospitalized, or worse. This is an unfair burden on the poor and it ends up costing the health system far, far more.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, Canada was supposed to have a national drug plan over a decade ago. Eleven years ago, the federal government signed an agreement with the provinces and territories called the 2004 Health Accord. It set stable funding from the federal government for 10 years and opened the door to much needed improvements. Most importantly, it promised action on national drug coverage - a universal pharmacare program.

However, when the Conservatives came to power in 2006, they refused to act on that promise. For almost ten years, progress has stalled on pharmacare. Yet years of research show that a universal pharmacare program would save billions every year.

Recent research by Dr. Steve Morgan, Dr. Danielle Martin and other leading researchers at UBC, has shown conclusively that universal pharmacare would save a minimum of $7.3 billion annually. This move would increase access to medicine, keep people healthier and out of hospitals, while saving an enormous sum of money.

With $7.3 billion dollars extra per year we could slash wait lists for home and long term care, we could adequately fund mental health services, and hire more rural doctors - all while covering life-saving medications for patients like Bill.

So where do local candidates running in the federal election stand?

At 1 p.m. on Sunday, September 20th, we're hosting an all-candidates debate on health and inequality at the Best Western Bridgewater. Join us to hear what each federal candidate in the riding will do to improve health care.

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