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In the final days of the fight for pharmacare, will the Liberals stand up to corporate power?

The fight for pharmacare that is universal, comprehensive, and single-payer is at a critical point.

Earlier this week, I was on Parliament Hill with the Canadian Health Coalition to press officials on implementing public pharmacare and ending health care privatization. While in Ottawa, we heard from multiple sources that pharmacare legislation could be coming sooner than expected — as early as next week. 

Incredibly, what that legislation will contain is still up for debate. One of the last issues outstanding in the Liberal-NDP negotiations on pharmacare has to do with who pays for the medication — private and public insurers or the federal government as the sole price negotiator and buyer.

Listen to Robin Tress on CBC Maritime Noon explaining the latest on pharmacare

The New Democrats are pressing for a single-payer pharmacare system, which would allow the federal government could use bulk-buying to push down drug prices. This was a key reason why the Liberal government’s own expert panel, led by Dr. Eric Hoskins, recommended this approach in its 2019 report on implementing pharmacare.

The Liberals, however, are split, both at the level of the caucus and the cabinet. While we heard from many Liberals that they are supportive of a pharmacare plan that covers all Canadians, others repeated Big Pharma talking points about the fiscal costs of universal pharmacare and suggested that a plan that targets the most needy would be best. 

When Canadian Health Coalition delegates pushed back by pointing out that starting out with universal coverage for essential medicines would cost only $3.5 billion per year — less than 1% of the federal budget — some MPs seemed surprised. 

But we also heard disturbing indications the Liberal government could go back on their commitment to a universal drug plan, because they think voters don’t care enough. As a result, some Liberal MPs were clearly inclined to push ahead with a stop-gap plan where only those Canadians without insurance would be eligible, even if that means the end of the supply-and-confidence deal.

The omnipresence of corporate lobbyists from these industries on the Hill was raised by several Senators and MPs favourable to universal pharmacare, who felt they were warping the debate over this crucial issue. 

One Conservative MP, for instance, cited the dubious statistic of 97 per cent of Canadians having drug insurance – a completely fanciful number based on a study funded by Innovative Medicines Canada, the leading pharmaceutical industry lobby group. The Council of Canadians’ research on corporate lobbying against pharmacare by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries has confirmed this spike in activity.

Having our voices heard now is so important. During my meetings with MPs in Ottawa this week, many told me they haven’t heard from their constituents about pharmacare, and that makes them feel like it’s not a priority issue. In these last few days before the legislation arrives, we need to make sure MPs know that you want to see universal pharmacare, and you expect them to live up to the promises made to deliver it.

It’s quite frankly sickening to think that we might end up with an early election that delivers a majority government to the Poilievre Conservatives, just because the Liberals couldn’t muster the courage to stand up to Big Pharma and the insurance industries. That they would rather go back on their promises, ignore the research of their own advisors, and rip up the deal they signed with the NDP than move forward to ensuring all Canadians have access to medicines based on need, rather than income, is infuriating.

Liberal MPs are saying that they’re not feeling enough heat on pharmacare to push for a public, universal program. Will you help correct that by making some calls to your MP and target ministers now?