Editorial: The real cost of pharmacare

The advisory council tasked by the federal government with designing a national pharmacare program has released its report. The council is calling for drug costs to be publicly insured, in the same manner as hospital and physician services.

In many respects, this is a desirable objective. At present, one in five households reports family members who could not afford a prescription medication.

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At $34 billion annually, drug costs are now the second- largest component of the national health-care bill. Hospitals come first.

In addition, Canada is the only country with universal health care that does not cover drugs.

So yes, the council has a case. However, there are formidable obstacles to overcome. The authors say their plan will save Canadians $5 billion per year.

But while that is the amount saved by individuals who fill prescriptions, the program will cost taxpayers, as a whole, at least $20 billion, according to earlier estimates by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

The report also suggests employers who offer their workers drug insurance will save $750 annually per employee. But that is only accomplished by transferring the employer’s cost onto the back of government.

The council also wants to see a national formula established, in which each province would agree to cover the same drugs. At present, there is a hodgepodge of conflicting plans across the country.

This is also an admirable idea, but is it realistic? One reason for the lack of consistency is that provinces with fewer resources cannot afford to be as generous as some others.

Finally, the council proposes to do away with any form of means test. The price every person pays would be at $2 per prescription for essential drugs, and $5 for all others. Failure to take into account the ability to pay will add greatly to the cost.

Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor has promised to take the recommendations under advisement. With a general election due this fall, it’s likely we will see at least some movement toward more universal coverage.

Yet, a full-scale national pharmacare plan might be, cost-wise, a bridge too far. With provincial health-care budgets already strained to the breaking point, it is hard to see how room could be made for such an enormous additional commitment.

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