Saskatchewan

Sask. to provide universal coverage for abortion pill Mifegymiso

The Saskatchewan government has decided to fully cover the cost of the abortion pill Mifegymiso.

Medical students, NDP lobbied government to cover cost of pill

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. (Linepharma International)

The Saskatchewan government has decided to fully cover the cost of the abortion pill Mifegymiso.

Universal coverage under the province's drug plan is in effect starting Friday.

Mifegymiso is the first oral drug approved by Health Canada for early termination of a pregnancy. Saskatchewan was the last province to say it would provide universal coverage.

Health Minister Jim Reiter said Friday a variety of factors led to his decision to approve universal access.

"This is a very divisive issue. It is an issue where you are not going to make everyone happy. Federal law has made it very clear that abortion needs to be provided. This is a less invasive way of doing that," Reiter said.

Previously, only the lowest-income earners were covered by the province. The drug coverage from private insurers will now be incurred by the province. Reiter said the estimate is between $65,000 and $200,000 per year.

Reiter said when other province's increased access to Mifegymiso, it did not lead to a rise in the number of abortions but shifted them away from surgical procedures. 

This spring, Reiter requested the Drug Plan and Extended Benefits Branch conduct a review of the universal coverage.

Earlier this week, the government foreshadowed that an announcement on coverage was imminent.

NDP MLA Vicki Mowat said on Monday that the government had "no choice" but to approve universal coverage after Manitoba announced it would be covering the cost.

"We know that when there is a full funding situation there is more availability for the drug. Because it is safer, cheaper and less invasive - we see this as a no-brainer," Mowat said on Friday.

Mowat said the government should shift its focus to preventing unwanted pregnancies by looking at covering the costs of birth control.

Reiter said his officials made the recommendation to provide universal access but that the final decision was his to make.

"I don't think it took too long. When it was first raised with me, I didn't think it was an issue," Reiter said.

Students, health activists applaud decision

In March, University of Saskatchewan medical students met with Reiter to ask for universal access.

The student group said that by not providing access to medical abortion, but providing access to surgical abortion, the province is violating the tenet of universality in the Canada Health Act.

On Friday, University of Saskatchewan medical student Lara Witt celebrated the decision.

"We're very excited, we're very pleased. It's been the result of a collective advocacy effort of many different groups over the past couple years since Mife[gymiso] was brought into Canada," Witt said.

She said that advocacy paid dividends.

"I think it did help expedite the process a little bit, but I do think it would have been inevitable given a year or two for sure."

These medical students from the U of S met with Minister Reiter in March. Back row: Samuel Simonson, Shane Leyen, Regan Brownbridge. Front row: Alisha Beler, Lara Witt, McKayla Cozart. (Submitted by Lara Witt)

Her classmate Alan Chan said Monday that providing universal access is a "women's right."

"It's something that should be accessible and free to all women for the purpose of safety and efficiency, as well as for the purpose of cost savings from a national perspective."

Chan said the cost of the drug to the taxpayer was far less than that of a surgical abortion.

"We are thrilled," said Frédérique Chabot, the director of health promotion for Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.

"This medication means we don't need the same infrastructure. It makes a difference for people that had to travel hundreds of kilometres to access care up until now," Chabot said.

"This was a long time coming."

Drug approved in 2017 but universal coverage had to wait

The Saskatchewan government added Mifegymiso to its formulary in 2017, two years after it was approved by Health Canada.

The ministry estimated the drug costs, someone without coverage, around $360 on its own.

Coverage of a prescription differed from patient to patient depending on income, with registered low-income earners being eligible for a $2 prescription.

The Ministry of Health said that from September 2017 to December 2018, 482 prescriptions for Mifegymiso were dispensed in Saskatchewan and 138 of those were covered by the province's drug plan, either fully or partially.

Earlier this year the NDP criticized the government's process, accusing it of delaying universal coverage. The criticism intensified after remarks at an anti-abortion event by Minister of Rural and Remote Health Greg Ottenbreit. Premier Scott Moe said Ottenbreit's comments crossed "a small line".

About the Author

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for 12 years. He hosts the CBC podcast On the Ledge. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

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