Provincial and territorial health ministers announced today they're tackling the problem of ballooning prescription drug costs, one of several issues they plan to raise with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott when they meet in Vancouver tomorrow.

The ministers stopped short of discussing a national pharmacare program — something health advocates demonstrating outside the meetings were calling for — but did decide to formally create a working group looking at "fairness and equity and appropriateness of access to prescription drugs," said Eric Hoskins, Ontario's health minister.

The federal government would be invited to join the group, he said.

Hoskins said they'd build on the success of the provinces' bulk-buying program, the Pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance, which has saved money by negotiating large contracts with pharmaceutical companies. The federal government announced it will join that program this week.

Demographic disagreement

The ministers agreed on the need for a new approach to health-care delivery that's both "sustainable" and "efficient," said B.C.'s health minister, Terry Lake, but unsurprisingly differed on specific proposals for change.

One contentious idea, led in part by B.C., is the idea that a province's health-care funding from Ottawa be tied to demographics — so provinces with a larger proportion of seniors, like B.C., get more support.

Eric Hoskins

Eric Hoskins, Ontario's health minister, said the ministers agreed to formally create a working group to tackle issues of equity and access to prescription drugs. (CBC)

"It is a subject of contention because whenever you talk about redistributing funds there are provinces and territories that will win and some that will lose," said Lake.

New Brunswick's minister of health, Victor Boudreau, agreed that age was something that should be considered in the Canada Health Transfer.

Philpott had said ahead of the meeting that she thought there was "a great appetite in not distracting ourselves too much about the financial conversations" but Lake said they're key.

"We are clear that we can't really talk about health care without talking about how we're going to pay for health care," said Lake.

The ministers said they looked forward to their first formal meeting with Philpott, who had indicated a willingness to listen, and is herself a physician.

"There was a spirit in the room today which was really enthusiastically looking forward to a different type of relationship with our federal partners," said Eric Hoskins, Ontario's health minister.

The talks so far have covered a number of issues that will be brought to the table tomorrow, said Lake, including:

  • Marijuana legalization.
  • Expensive drugs for rare diseases.
  • Newborn screening practices.
  • Youth mental health.
  • Physician-assisted dying.
  • How to best work with Indigenous people to promote health.

The ministers will have a working dinner with Philpott tonight, and talks continue tomorrow.

With files from Catherine Cullen