An estimated 8 million people have applied for Canada's emergency relief benefit, and many of them have lost access to benefit plans to pay for their prescription drugs. According to the Globe and Mail, many workers automatically lost their workplace medical coverage the day their job ended, while others will lose their benefits a month after being laid off.
In March, MPs unanimously passed a motion to move forward with national pharmacare. They called on the government to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Council on National Pharmacare and begin negotiations with provinces to make a national pharmacare program a reality. Right now, provinces offer a patchwork of coverage for drug benefits. According to the Canadian Health Coalition, it is nowhere near what people need and often comes with costly deductibles and copays.
Universal pharmacare is even more urgent during this COVID-19 pandemic as people lose jobs with employer-paid benefit plans.
Pharmacare urgent now
According to a recent Angus Reid survey, 44 per cent of Canadian households say they have lost work or experienced layoffs due to the pandemic. It isn't clear how many of these workers have also lost access to benefits that include prescription medications, but it is fair to expect a good number of them have – and many wouldn't have had benefits to begin with.
Laid off workers that have a chronic disease such as Crohn's, diabetes, asthma, heart disease or any condition that requires regular medication would see their additional now out-of-pocket costs soar. They may not be able to purchase a supply of medications if they need to self-isolate.
Pharmacies have also been told to only fill prescriptions one month at a time in order to avoid shortages. This means people have additional co-payments and dispensing fees to pay as they fill their prescriptions more often. This added expense is difficult for those on fixed or reduced budgets.
Last year, Dr. Eric Hoskins delivered a federal government-commissioned report calling for a single-payer national pharmacare program.
He says the coronavirus has exposed the need for universal pharmacare.
"It has really underlined, or exposed even more, the vulnerability of Canadians and the challenges that they face to access prescribed medicines," Dr. Hoskins said. "There's an opportunity to respond now in a way which will protect access for these individuals and their families and also move us one step closer toward pharmacare."
High drug prices
According to the federal government, "Canada's drug prices are now the third highest among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries – that is about 25% above the OECD median."
When people can't afford their medication, they can suffer acute health issues that take them to the emergency room. But right now, in the middle of the pandemic, hospitals are at the front line of fighting COVID-19 and going there would increase exposure to the virus.
The Council of Canadians has joined with labour and other civil society groups to call for access to medications without a barrier of cost. Canada is the only country in the world with a publicly funded health care system that does not include prescription medications. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, one in four Canadians couldn't afford the drugs they need to stay healthy.
"The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us how critical it is to ensure that everyone has equitable access to life-saving medications," said Melanie Benard, National Director of Policy and Advocacy of the Canadian Health Coalition. "At times like these, patients who can't afford their medication are at increased risk of health complications. People are suffering needlessly without adequate drug coverage. That's unacceptable."
More people are vulnerable
Decades of cuts, privatization and putting corporate profits ahead of all else is now revealing how so many people are left vulnerable during this pandemic – without savings, without safe working conditions and sick days, without clean water, without housing, and without the ability to get the health care they need.
Health care isn't truly universal without pharmacare. It was a gap in our national health care program that has been left unfilled since medicare was established in 1968. Over the ensuing decades as large multi-national pharmaceutical corporations gained power and influence, our ability to fill this gap began to feel more and more impossible. Trade agreements have made it worse, entrenching corporate rights for pharmaceutical companies to hold longer patent agreements that keep cost-effective drug options off the market for longer periods of time.
Multi-national drug and insurance companies were already lining up to stop a public pharmacare plan before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. COVID-19 has shown us more clearly the flaws and gaps in our existing health care system. Everyone has a right to health care. It's time for national pharmacare based on the principles our public health care system is built on and it's urgent that we do it now.