B.C. hopes for action on national pharmacare plan

Adrian Dix says it's disappointing there was no money in the federal budget to get started.

Federal government has created a committee but no details on future funding in place yet

Health Minister Adrian Dix says the cost of prescription drugs is a pressing issue for people in B.C. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix is hopeful the federal government's creation of an advisory council on options to proceed with a national pharmacare program leads to concrete action.

"We would like to get to work right away. We would have liked to have seen money in this budget to get to work right away from the federal government. But their commitment to move forward you have to view positively and you have to get on with it," he said.

Dix said it was disappointing there was no money in the federal budget to get started, contrasting its approach with the $105 million over three years the B.C. government has spent to eliminate or reduce prescription drug deductibles for low-income earners. 

"It's one of the most progressive steps in Canada in pharmacare in a long time," he said. 

"The key issue for us is coverage. Ensuring people who need prescription drugs can get them. We have the outlines of the system here, but if the federal government wanted to step up with supports for that, we'd be supportive of that." 

Experts mixed on whether it will proceed

Canadians currently pay among the highest prices for prescription drugs in the world, and it's estimated about 700,000 Canadians skip purchases of food to pay for prescription medications. 

But Alan Cassels, a pharmacare policy researcher at UVic, is somewhat skeptical whether the federal government's committee, which has no dollars attached to it, will be able to push a national plan forward.

"I attended the national-approach-to-pharmacare conference in 1998," he said.

"It's easy to be cynical, because we've seen this zombie rise from the grave in the past."

Cassels says that unless it's a universal system fully overseen by the federal government, the biggest challenge will be getting all the provinces to agree on a plan.  

"The provinces have to switch from what we have now to a different program. B.C. pharmacare is a good model, I think, for a national model, much different than Quebec. But if you were to ask health-decision makers 'we want you to adopt a system closer to Quebec,' they'd say forget it," he said.

Steve Morgan, a professor of health policy at the University of British Columbia, said he's still pleased the government is starting a discussion on whether it should cover the cost of pharmaceutical drugs.

"This is referred to as an advisory council on the implementation of national pharmacare, not an advisory council on whether Canada should have national pharmacare," said Morgan, who heads up Canada's Pharmaceutical Policy Research Collaboration.

Morgan says he'd love to see the Liberals roll out a pharmacare program in time for next year's budget but admits the party could make this an issue heading into the next election.

With files from Megan Thomas and Jesse Johnston