NDP promise of universal pharmacare by 2020 ‘not realistic’: Health minister

OTTAWA – The federal NDP’s promise to deliver a national universal pharmacare plan by 2020 is “not realistic,” according to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, who couldn’t say what year the Liberals would propose to deliver the program.

On Wednesday, the panel studying the prospect of a national pharmacare plan issued its final report. It said that provincial governments need to work with the federal government to sew together what is currently a patchwork of prescription drug plans to make a national system.

The report said that covering the costs of prescription medicine could save each family $350 a year annually, though by 2027 the cost to run the program could reach $15 billion.

The Liberals have said they accept the report and will work towards following through on a universal pharmacare system that all Canadians have access to, though the NDP were quick to call on the plan to be implemented “immediately.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has promised that if his party, currently in third place, was to form government in 2019 it would bring in a comprehensive universal national pharmacare plan beginning in 2020, saying the billions of dollars it would cost would be worth it.

“We need implementation now. Canadians have waited decades, the case is overwhelming, and people are getting sick and are dying because they can’t access medicine,” said NDP health critic Don Davies in a statement this week.

“When I hear the NDP saying in the House of Commons that are going to make sure that a pharmacare program will be put in place by 2020, it’s not realistic,” Petitpas Taylor said in an interview on CTV’s Question Period.

Though, the minister couldn’t say what year the Liberals are looking at to propose beginning the plan.

The panel recommended that a new drug agency be responsible for developing the initial essential list of prescription drugs by Jan. 1, 2022, expanding to a “fully comprehensive” list by Jan. 1, 2027.

“We’ve been working towards this goal for the past three years,” she said. “We have to establish contracts and negotiations with provinces and territories. And just like the medicare system… it took 10 years to put in place the medicare act to make sure that all provinces and territories were going to sign on,” she said.

Petitpas Taylor was asked how big a percentage of the cost of a pharmacare plan the federal government would offer to cover, and she said that while they will have to put “some money on the table,” it’s premature to say just how much.

When asked whether the Liberals’ proposed plan would be fully universal, or income-tested the way the Canada Child Benefit is—meaning the benefit for each Canadian varies based on their means—the minister said that cabinet still has to discuss the report’s findings and that both she, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have committed to “making sure that all Canadians have access to a universal pharmacare program.”

In a separate interview on CTV’s Question Period, NDP MP Nathan Cullen denied that the Liberals’ plan to promise pharmacare has taken the wind out of the New Democrats’ sails, saying that they can promise it, but there is a “credibility gap” when it comes to Liberal platforms.

“The Liberals promised a lot in the last election, progressive promises that they didn’t follow through on,” said Cullen. And he noted that their current record of trying to implement a national plan with carbon taxes has “blown up in their face.”

“So can Trudeau credibly say ‘I can bring the premiers on board right now’ when he is in a fight with the majority of them?” Cullen said, adding that he still thinks it’s a policy that the NDP should focus on.

With files from The Canadian Press