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Trudeau government non-committal on pharmacare as NAFTA & TPP threats loom

Health Minister Jane Philpott and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau need to respond to the public demand for pharmacare.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Health is studying the idea of national pharmacare and is expected to release a report with recommendations at some point this fall (after the House reconvenes on September 18).

In May, Toronto Star columnist Susan Delacourt wrote, “The Commons health committee has been studying the idea of a national pharmacare program off and on since late 2015. As recently as February, in fact, the committee was hearing from experts on how a national drug plan might fit into the Constitution. But neither [federal health minister Jane] Philpott nor her government has shown much enthusiasm for the committee’s work — at least so far. Ontario’s gambit [to provide a limited version of pharmacare for people under 25 years of age] may change that, basically forcing the federal Liberals to get serious about pharmacare before the next election [in October 2019].”

Philpott has stated that the Trudeau government isn’t pursuing pharmacare, but rather is working to reduce the costs of prescription drugs. In January, she commented, “The step the prime minister has asked me to take during this mandate that I am absolutely, firmly committed to doing is getting those prices down. It would be irresponsible of me and irresponsible of our government to lock in a commitment to universal, public-paid pharmacare paying the prices now that we do.”

And yet the Trudeau government is pushing for the provisional implementation of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) to take place this September 21. A study by Joel Lexchin (York University) and Marc-André Gagnon (Carleton University) found that the extended patent provisions for pharmaceutical drugs under that agreement could cost us between $850 million to $1.65 billion annually.

Philpott’s approach to reduce costs appears to be through the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board.

The Globe and Mail has explained, “The review board was created in 1987, when the federal government [under Brian Mulroney] agreed to [lengthen] patent protection for new drugs in exchange for [already highly-profitable] pharmaceutical companies investing the equivalent of 10 per cent of sales in research and development in Canada [which they still do not do]. The board can order companies to drop their prices if it deems them to be too high [compared to the prices in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States].” Philpott is proposing to drop the U.S. and Switzerland from that list given the high cost of drugs in those countries.

In May she also hinted at a national list of essential medicines that would be covered for every Canadian, but warned that was a long way off.

There are also major threats right now — because of so-called ‘free trade’ deals — to the future possibility of pharmacare in Canada.

Bloomberg has reported, “The [Trans-Pacific Partnership] establishes at least a five-year minimum period during which brand-name drug companies have exclusive rights to sell treatments made from living organisms, known as biologics, after they’ve been approved. That’s fewer than the 12-year exclusivity period granted under U.S. law, but is longer than the time frame now observed by many countries in the pact.” While the United States pulled out of the TPP, the Trudeau government will likely be engaging in TPP 11 (the TPP without the US) talks next month in the hope of concluding a deal by November 10-11.

Philpott has already stated that high drug costs are an impediment to implementing pharmacare.

And at the conclusion of the August 16-20 talks in Washington, DC on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Canadian Press reported, “On pharmaceuticals, the U.S. has also proposed a 12-year patent-style protection for cutting-edge biologics medicines, sources say. This is significantly higher than the protections in Canada and Mexico, would drive up prices, and could be an irritant if the U.S. sticks to it.”

Earlier this month, Steve Morgan (University of British Columbia) and Ruth Lopert (George Washington University) commented in the Toronto Star, “In its efforts to repeal Obamacare, the current U.S. administration is willing to drive up health care costs while allowing tens of millions of Americans to lose their health insurance. If it’s willing to do that to its own citizens, this administration will likely also attempt to coerce Canada to do the same to Canadians by way of NAFTA provisions that would prevent implementation of an equitable and sustainable universal pharmacare system.”

Maude Barlow has highlighted, “Tommy Douglas understood that without universal care for prescribed medicines, many Canadians would not have access to true health care. It is time to complete this dream. All Canadians deserve equal access to safe and effective medically necessary drugs. It is time to finish writing the final chapter in Medicare’s history. We will do it together.”

To add your voice to the demand for pharmacare, please click here.