Canada lags far behind most of the developed world when it comes to covering the cost of prescription drugs for seniors and low-income families, a study suggests.

The Wyatt Health International Comparison report, funded by pharmaceutical companies, ranks 18 countries on access to new drug therapies.

Canada ranked 17th in public spending on pharmaceuticals, behind Finland, Portugal, Australia and Denmark, the review found.

"It is surprising that Canada ranks so low in comparison to these OECD countries," said George Wyatt, the report's author. "This study raises several questions about limited access to and choice of medicines."

The findings underscore the need for a publicly funded, national pharmaceutical plan, Wyatt said. The group received a grant from drug companies to do the study, which he said did not influence the research.

Monday's report confirms what previous researchers have found.

"We've had the Kirby report, we've had the Romanow report, we've had the health accord of 2003," Wyatt recalled. "And what do we have? A lot of talk. We don't have much action."

Apple and orange comparisons

The report also looked at Canada's Common Drug Review, which makes recommendations to provinces on what drug purchases should be publicly reimbursed.

Of 36 new drugs common to all jurisdictions studied, Canada’s review recommended 61 per cent of drugs for public reimbursement, compared to the average of 91 per cent in the European Union and 88 per cent in the United States, the report said.

Countries chose which drugs to fund based on different criteria, with some like Canada considering cost-effectiveness while others don't, said drug industry critic Dr. Joel Lexchin, a professor of health policy at Toronto's York University.

The findings are like comparing apples and oranges, Lexchin said Tuesday. In France for example, a life-sustaining drug gets more funding than one to treat a chronic condition.

Catastrophic drug coverage

In 2002, the federal Liberal government promised to help sick Canadians who can't afford drugs they need.

On Tuesday, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion pledged $900 million for a "catastrophic" drug coverage plan to reduce financial burdens on Canadian families coping with serious and chronic illnesses such as cancer and arthritis.

If elected, the party said it would work with the provincial and territorial governments to determine the level of catastrophic drug coverage that should be provided as a national minimum, and directly compensate those provinces that are already providing that level of coverage.

Cancer patient Deb Maskens of Guelph, Ont., said she is still waiting for drug funding, which could mean the difference between life and death.

"If I don't have $7,000 a month, I'm not going to have access to drugs," Maskens said, "And that means I will be moved to palliative care."

That shouldn't be allowed to happen anywhere in Canada, said  Ross Wiseman, Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister.

National drug plan urged

Provincial and territorial health ministers are pressing the federal government to share costs of a national drug plan.

"Today is the time for action," Wiseman said. "We are just waiting for the federal government to come to the table and put their money where their mouth is."

Some provinces like Newfoundland have recently expanded their drug coverage plans, increasing the gap between regions.

Conservative party officials said they haven't made any health-related announcements during the current election campaign and need more information on catastrophic drug coverage.

On Monday, NDP Leader Jack Layton pledged $1 billion over five years for more doctors and nurses.

Canadians go to the polls on Oct. 14.