New Brunswick

National pharmacare finally feels within reach, Saint John doctor says

A Saint John pediatrician who has advocated tackling poverty at the patient level is excited about the federal government's movement toward a national pharmacare program.

Federal government creating advisory council to work out options on how to proceed

National pharmacare will mean cost savings for patients, said Dr. Sarah Gander of Saint John. (Horizon Health Network)

A Saint John pediatrician who has advocated tackling poverty at the patient level is excited the federal government is taking steps toward a national pharmacare program.

The Liberal government pledged Tuesday in the budget to explore the options for a national pharmacare program. It would be aimed at filling gaps and improving access to prescription drugs, but the spending plan said nothing about what that might cost.

An advisory council is being set up to study the issue.

Dr. Sarah Gander said there will be "clear cost benefits" right away if Canada adopts a national drug plan.

"Whether it's out-of-pocket costs for patients, the insurance costs, the costs of pharmaceuticals by the provinces, or the costs of non adherence to the medication, which we know is a problem in the country," she said Wednesday in an interview with Information Morning Saint John.

'Healthcare burden'

In her 10 years practising in the city, Gander has seen how Canada's health care system falls short in treating patients who struggle to make ends meet.

"As a doctor, if I prescribe you a medication, you leave the hospital to go and fill it in the pharmacy, [but] if you don't have the money to do so, you are unable to complete the treatment we recommend," she said.

"That results in people coming back more often, remaining unwell for longer, and that health-care burden outweighs the cost of being able to allow public access to pharmaceuticals."

The advisory council being set up to study the implementation of national pharmacare will be headed by Dr. Eric Hoskins, the departing Ontario health minister. He will report back by next year with options on how to proceed with pharmacare.

Simplify coverage

"I see a lot of children in poverty," Gander said. "We have to ask ourselves if we can simplify the complexity around coverage for drugs. That's an easy first step."

A universal program would eliminate extra costs for patients, "whether they're purchasing insurance or buying the drugs themselves," she said.

"It decreases costs for them and allows them to save money for other things to keep them well."

Canada's health care system covers visits to the doctor and medically necessary hospital care. But once someone goes to fill a prescription, universal public health insurance ends for many Canadians.

Canadians pay among the highest prices for prescription drugs in the world. Canada is also the only country with universal health care that doesn't include prescription drugs.

Feels different

It's estimated about 700,000 Canadians skip purchases of food to pay for prescription medications and upwards of 240,000 skimp on heat to pay for drugs, according to Canadian Doctors for Medicare.

Including pharmacare in Canada's comprehensive health insurance system was discussed as far back as the 1940s.

Gander said this time it feels different.

"While the evidence for pharmacare has been strong for decades, we're at a point where there's public will and political will to move forward on this," Gander said.

"So I think it's an exciting time that we may see change in the near future."

With files from Information Morning Saint John