Nunavut's health department needs to be an advocate for people struggling with the high cost of prescription drugs in the territory, Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak said in the Legislative Assembly Monday.

While most Nunavut Inuit receive coverage for drugs under the federal Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program, Angnakak said others may end up paying more for the medication they need — simply because they live in the North.

"I fully agree with my colleague that the cost of some pharmacare products are out of reach for a lot of our citizens," said Health Minister Paul Okalik. 

"For those that aren't covered by NIHB, that's where we are concerned primarily."

Pharmaceuticals "suffer the same huge mark-ups" as a swath of items in the North, Okalik said, which is why he is working with colleagues in other provinces and territories to come up with solutions. 

Paul Okalik Health Minister Nunavut Government

Health Minister Paul Okalik says the government is looking at ways to lower the cost of pharmaceuticals that aren't covered by the federal Non-Insured Health Benefits program, including by purchasing drugs in bulk with other regions. (CBC)

"Some [high prices] we can't do much about, but some we can reduce through volume, by purchasing with other jurisdictions."

'Be the voice of Nunavummiut'

Angnakak also had concerns about the federal benefits program, saying she's heard of people who are surprised to find their drugs are not covered, especially since items are sometimes removed or added to the list.

She hopes the territorial government will be there to represent Nunavummiut who may feel helpless. 

"It's very hard for some person to fight against NIHB if something has been taken off. That's the way I would look at it," she said. 

"Is that something you could look at doing going into the future, is to be the voice of Nunavummiut?"

Okalik said making sure people in Nunavut are aware of what is covered has been "an ongoing issue for some time," but that it's up to Health Canada to communicate with patients about what is or is not covered. 

That doesn't mean the territorial government is doing nothing to improve the situation, according to Okalik. 

He said Nunavut has lobbied the government to establish a "navigator" — someone who can guide Inuit through the process.

That position is not yet in place, but Okalik said it will be rolled out this year.

Nurses needed in Kitikmeot region

Nunavut's health minister also spoke about the need for more local nurses during the legislative assembly on Monday. 

Okalik did not have the full numbers of nurses in transient positions or agency nurses on hand, but said staffing situations vary among the three regions. 

"We're doing okay in Iqaluit in terms of long-term nurses, but in the Kitikmeot we are struggling," he said. 

"We have far too many agency nurses in the Kitikmeot currently."

The vacancy rate for nursing positions as of last month is 38 per cent in Iqaluit, 58 per cent for the Baffin region, 87 per cent for the Kivalliq region and 42 per cent in the Kitikmeot region. 

Okalik said the government is providing incentives, including bonuses, to nurses, and the department hopes to train more local nurses across Nunavut.