Abortion pill to be fully covered by Manitoba government, minister says

The Manitoba government is going to provide universal access to the abortion pill Mifegymiso.

Mifegymiso is currently only available for free at clinics in Winnipeg and Brandon

Mifegymiso is a combination of two drugs that can terminate a pregnancy of up to nine weeks. It was approved for use in Canada in 2015. The cost per dosage is about $300. (Linepharma International)

The Manitoba government is going to provide universal access to the abortion pill Mifegymiso, a move that will leave Saskatchewan as the lone province where the cost of the drug is not fully covered by the public.

Rochelle Squires, minister responsible for the status of women, said making the drug easier to access will benefit women who want to stay in their home communities.

"Our analysis shows that it is more cost-effective for women to stay in their own community to access reproductive health services, where possible," Squires told The Canadian Press on Saturday.

"We also know that for many women, it is preferable to be able to stay in their community instead of coming into a place like Brandon or Winnipeg."

Currently, Mifegymiso is only available for free at clinics in Winnipeg and Brandon that offer surgical abortions.

Otherwise, women have had to pay upwards of $300 for the two-pill treatment unless they are covered by private insurance or low-income pharmacare.

Once the new system is in place, which Squires said could take some time, women will be able to get a prescription filled at a pharmacy for free.

"I don't have an exact timeline right now, but we're wanting to move quickly on this," Squires said.

Cost a barrier 

Ensuring adequate supply of the drug in pharmacies across the province shouldn't be a major issue, Squires said. Mifegymiso has been stocked, but the cost was a barrier for some women.

Supply issues have cropped up in Saskatchewan. The Canadian Press contacted 83 community pharmacies across cities and rural parts of Saskatchewan in April, and 79 reported they did not have the drug on their shelves.

Some Saskatchewan pharmacies said Mifegymiso is usually ordered as needed, rather than stocked, and could be brought in within a day. But others reported there was no inventory available to do so.

Advocates have been pressuring Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government to make the drug more widely available, as other provinces have done since Mifegymiso became available two years ago.

Squires' announcement comes two days before a planned rally by Mifegymiso advocates at the legislature.

Lucy Karp, a member of the group behind the rally, Medical Students for Choice, says the event will go ahead as planned.

While Karp said the rally will now be more celebration than protest, the group still has questions for government.

"We think that the universal coverage and the free Mifegymiso is an awesome first step," she told CBC News Saturday.

"But there are still barriers to access and we think that that's the responsibility of the government to ensure that some of those barriers are knocked down."

Fight continues

Karp said the group will continue to fight to make sure rural and remote pharmacies are keeping Mifegymiso in stock and to make sure pharmacists prescribe the drug freely.

They're also calling on the government to expand the list of practitioners who can prescribe the pills to include nurse practitioners and midwives.

"We don't think it should just be physicians," she said.

The group also wants to see universal coverage of Mifegymiso opened up to those who don't identify as female, she said.

The Opposition New Democrats have accused the government of being reluctant to move on women's reproductive rights. They point to the fact that Squires, as minister for the status of women, has consistently fielded questions on the issue instead of current Health Minister Cameron Friesen and his predecessor, Kelvin Goertzen.

"We have had to fight ... to get this government to understand that access to abortion is a human right and is a health care issue," Nahanni Fontaine, NDP critic for the status of women," said Saturday.

Squires' announcement comes as a provincial election looms in Manitoba and is among a flurry of press releases and news conferences in recent days on issues ranging from a new provincial park to the hiring of additional paramedics across the province.

The next vote is scheduled for Oct. 6, 2020, but Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly said he plans to call the vote sometime this year, possibly before the federal election in October.

With files from Tessa Vanderhart