People are calling on Canada to offer coverage of more drugs. Photo: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik.
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Federal government needs to take action to improve this country’s health-care

Unlike our neighbours to the south, Canadians like to feel proud of our healthcare system. But would it come as a surprise to say that our so-called “universal healthcare” is not universal after all?

New research in the journal CMAJ Open has criticized Canada’s lack of policy in this area, and says a list of prescription drugs to receive public funding is needed.

Although the Canadian health care system covers all essential medical services for residents, medication and prescriptions are not covered by this plan. In fact, Canada is one of the few countries with universal healthcare that do not offer a medication access program. Provinces and territories have their own programs to supplement part of the medication costs, but none are able to provide subsidy for essential medications.

And here comes the bombshell statistics: about 1 in 10 Canadians cannot afford prescription medication.

This is made even worse by the fact that Canada has the second-highest medication cost in the world. In the past five years, our government wasted $15 billion over highly priced prescription medications. At this point, it should be obvious that the Canada Health Act (CHA) is not a “universal healthcare plan” for Canadians.

What’s even more infuriating is that the notion of essential medicines is not new in the healthcare community, and Canada has done little to work on it despite rising costs. The World Health Organization (WHO) first published the WHO Model Lists of Essential Medicines in 1977, which includes 208 medications.

The WHO updates this list of essential medicines every two years and 2017 will mark the 40th anniversary of the list, which now includes over 410 medications. More than 155 countries followed the WHO model and created their own national lists of essential medication.

On the opposite side of the globe, New Zealand’s medication subsidy program negotiates and purchases medication at prices about 90 per cent lower than Canadian prices. New Zealand created a universal list of essential medication to the health and disability sector. The subsidized medication charges at $5, and prescriptions for children under 13 are free. With this in mind, you can’t say that government action won’t make a difference in this arena.

Five years ago, the House of Commons’ Health Committee called on the federal government to establish a list of essential medicines to receive funding and lower costs for people who use the medicine, but Canada has yet to adopt one. To emphasize the significance of the WHO model, this list accounts for 44 per cent of prescriptions filled by pharmacies in 2015.

On top of the current coverage in healthcare, essential medication should be included in the government’s plan for Canadians’ healthcare future. We need to see federal leadership in creating a national pharmacare system, which would create an agency responsible for the purchase, safety screening, and distribution essential medications for the nation.

Similar to the New Zealand approach, Canada as a nation should create a list of essential medication. Through this method, Canada will be able to offer subsidy and cost reduction for essential pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, the pharmacare system will ensure Canadians have access to safe medications.

It’s time for Canadians to live up to our reputation on a global stage, and endorse a truly universal healthcare system.