Against incredible odds, Canada is getting universal pharmacare

Posted on March 4, 2024 in Health Debates

Source: — Authors: – 0pinion/Contributors
March 4, 2024.   By Donya Ziaee and Nikolas Barry-Shaw, Contributors

Although monumental, the pharmacare victory is also fragile. We must now prepare for a barrage of efforts by corporate actors to impede any further progress.

Just a year ago, it seemed almost certain that the Liberals would cave to corporate pressure and abandon the promise of universal pharmacare, despite its immense popularity.

But this week, the tide seems to have finally turned in favour of the people — with the introduction of a pharmacare bill that defies decades of industry pushback.

Pharmacare’s corporate adversaries, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, seemed to have the upper hand. They enjoyed open-door access to the halls of government. They ran alarmist campaigns about the dangers of a universal single-payer program, warning that it would be “unrealistic,” a “disaster” for the country, and make Canadians “lose access to medicines they use.” And they attempted to poison the public debate on pharmacare with misleading pollslies, and stunts.

For years, these powerful industries marshalled enormous resources to derail progress on a national pharmacare plan, pressuring the government to reject the principle of universality, keep our current mixed public-private system in place, and limit drug coverage to the uninsured.

Now, against incredible odds, Liberal-NDP negotiations have produced legislation that flies in the face of years of furious lobbying by industry — one that paves the way for a universal, public, single-payer pharmacare system.

This is no small feat. It was thanks to tireless grassroots organizing and pressure from patients, advocates, and health-care workers — in the context of a minority government propped up by the NDP — that the Liberals were finally forced to stand up to corporate power.

Although monumental, this victory is also fragile. We must now prepare for a barrage of efforts by corporate actors to impede any further progress.

While the single-payer framework set out in the legislation may have pharmaceutical and insurance companies worried, the first phase of drug coverage will do little to hurt their bottom lines.

The newly-introduced Pharmacare Act promises to provide universal single-payer coverage for just two classes of drugs (birth control and diabetes), pending agreements with the provinces and territories. And while the bill lays out plans for developing a comprehensive list of essential drugs to be covered under a national pharmacare plan, there is no guarantee that future classes of medication would be similarly covered under a national, single-payer, universal model.

Industry will undoubtedly be banking on this legislative loophole to block the expansion of this universal single-payer program to a more comprehensive list of drugs.

They will also depend on unco-operative provinces, some of which are already parroting industry talking points, for delays and setbacks.

After coming so far, we can’t afford to let these wealthy corporations rob us of our victory.

Together, we must hold our elected representatives’ feet to the fire to rapidly fund, implement, and expand the national pharmacare program.

Single-payer universal pharmacare is sound policy that enjoys resounding support among people in Canada. Recent polling we commissioned showed that two out of three Canadians, across the political spectrum, favoured this model over a program that only targets the uninsured. This included not just the overwhelming majority of Liberal and NDP voters but also nearly half of Conservative voters.

In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis where one out of four Canadians are skipping their medications because they can’t afford them, public universal pharmacare is also what people need and deserve.

“We can’t stand still,” our founding member Tommy Douglas said in a 1982 speech about the unfinished business of Canadian Medicare. “We can either go back or we can go forward.”

With the first steps toward a national pharmacare plan, we have a chance to move forward, after so many years of going back.

Donya Ziaee is a researcher at the Council of Canadians. Nikolas Barry-Shaw is a campaigner at the Council of Canadians.

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