The Current

1 in 10 Canadians can't afford prescriptions: the case for national pharmacare

Canada is the only developed country in the world that has universal health care but no universal drug coverage. Canadians are being priced out of prescription drugs they desperately need — pushing advocates to call for a national pharmacare program.

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The high cost of medication is a hardship for many Canadians — young and old.

Jim Poot knows that reality better than most.

The retired teacher from Ancaster, Ont., was diagnosed with a slow-growing brain tumour in 2005, and the cost of the medication he requires has forced him — and his family— to make some very difficult decisions.

"The cost of these drugs is probably double what our mortgage payment used to be," Poot tells The Current's Friday host Laura Lynch. He is currently taking 21 medications that are prolonging his life and vastly improving his quality of life.

The question is how does he pay for them.

Jim's wife Brenda Poot has a family drug plan, but it's capped at $3,000 a year. The couple have to come up with another $23,000 annually on their own. They liquidated their assets and remortgaged their house.

Eventually Jim started saving pills, only taking part of his prescription and guessing which drugs would do him the most good.
One in 10 people in Canada can't afford to fill their prescriptions, according to national surveys, says UBC professor Steve Morgan. (CBC)

"At some point something has to give," Jim says.

"So on a daily basis, depending upon how I feel or what is having a significant impact on my day, that basically determines which medicines I'm going to either take or give up on that particular day."

Jim admits some days he guesses wrong.

University of British Columbia professor Steve Morgan says Jim's situation is not unique in Canada and says millions of Canadians are struggling to pay for essential drugs.

Morgan tells Lynch national surveys are fairly consistent: one in 10 people in Canada can't afford to fill their prescriptions. That's why he's calling on the federal government to introduce a national drug plan.

"Pharmacare is about making sure that Canadians can get the care they need, a high quality of care that's affordable to them and to society as a whole," says Morgan.

But Yanick Labrie warns that a closed national drug plan may cause more problems than it solves. The health economist from the Fraser Institute says he would love to see universal drug coverage for all Canadians, but worries that without competition, drug prices for Ottawa — and taxpayers — would continue to rise.

"In the end savings are going to come at a cost," Labrie tells Lynch.

"I'm afraid that if we ration access to medicine it's going to be costly in terms of health outcomes for Canadians."

The Fifth Estate is also taking a closer look at rising drug costs. The High Cost of Pharmaceuticals: Canada's Drug Problem airs Jan. 13, on CBC television at 9 pm, 9:30 p.m. in Newfoundland.

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.