Politics

Answers to some of your top health-care questions

Why can't I find a family doctor? Why aren't prescription drugs covered for all Canadians? Are wait times improving?

Health care was the third most important issue for Canadians heading into the federal election

Once again, Canadians have cited health care as a top concern heading into this election. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Health care is almost always cited by Canadians as a top election issue, and this election is no exception. A poll commissioned by CBC News found that "My health/health of a family member" was the third most important issue to  respondents.

Here are some answers to common health-care questions voters are asking.   

Why can't I find a family doctor?

Canada has no shortage of doctors graduating from medical school. But across the country, tens of thousands of Canadians are without a primary care physician.

According to the associate dean of Queen's University's undergraduate medical education program, about 2,900 students graduate every year from Canada's 17 medical schools. The problem is that not enough of those med students want to become family doctors. 

According to the Canadian Residency Matching Service (CaRMS), 138 family medicine spots went unfilled in 2019's first residency match. Not enough students applied for those positions, perhaps choosing other specialities with higher pay instead.

In British Columbia, there are calls to completely revamp the way the province pays family doctors.

In Quebec, a constitutional lawyer is suing the province over how it allocates permits to family doctors, arguing that the policy discriminates against patients in Montreal. 

In Nova Scotia, the problem goes beyond a lack of family doctors. There aren't enough anesthesiologists, and emergency physicians, nurses and clerical staff are stretched to the limit. 

Why aren't prescription drugs covered for all Canadians?

The Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Greens have each promised at some point in the past decade to bring in a national, taxpayer-funded pharmacare program. But it has yet to happen. 

After the last election, the Liberals struck an advisory council to study the issue and recommend how best to implement a national prescription drug program that would guarantee coverage for all Canadians. In June, the council called for a universal, single-payer program that it predicted would cost about $15 billion a year once fully implemented. 

The council's suggested timelines included having a national list of common and essential prescription medicines ready by Jan. 1, 2022, and a fully comprehensive plan developed by Jan. 2, 2027. 

The estimated cost for Canadians, beyond their taxes, would be a $2 co-payment for common drugs and $5 for less common ones.

The U.S. wants to buy drugs in bulk from Canada. Are we going to suffer shortages?

On July 31, the Trump administration said it wants to set up a system to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada in bulk. 

The next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised Canadians would not suffer prescription drug shortages as a result.

"We recognize the new situation brought on by American announcements, and Health Canada will continue to ensure that our priority is always ensuring that Canadians have access to the medication they need at affordable prices," Trudeau said.

Fifteen groups representing patients, health professionals, hospitals and pharmacists — including the Canadian Pharmacists Association — wrote a letter warning the federal health minister of the potential for increasing drug shortages.

"Hospital and community pharmacies in Canada are resourced to serve the Canadian public," the letter says. "They are not equipped to support to the needs of a country 10 times its size without creating important access or quality issues."

How can the U.S. just decide to do this anyway? 

It would involve a policy change in Washington, including a weakening of a longstanding ban on such buying practices aimed at protecting the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.

Some health and policy watchers in both Canada and the U.S. do not believe the legislation will ever be passed. The Trump administration has offered no timelines on the proposed change.  

Are wait times in Canada getting any shorter?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported in 2017 that 57 per cent of Canadians who needed to see a specialist had to wait longer than a month, compared with 42 per cent of patients in other OECD countries.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that about 30 per cent of patients requiring a hip or knee replacement or cataract surgery did not have their procedure done within the recommended wait times in 2018. 

Patients in B.C. wait the longest for certain key medical procedures. 

Wait times are also up at ERs and urgent care centres in Winnipeg.

And emergency wait times hit a record high in Ontario in June, where a recent report recommended more "virtual care."