The Federal Liberal Government recently released their planned budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Among the political posturing around the SNC Lavalin scandal and the usual partisan antics, the plan for a possible Canadian pharmacare strategy seemed to get buried in the news coverage. The federal government has committed $35 billion over four years for a drug agency to study drug prices, negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, and assess drug efficacy. Unfortunately, there was no clear commitment to a single-payer drug plan that many had hoped for.
Without question, the pharmacare strategy is the most important line in budget 2019. Currently, prescription drugs are covered by a patchwork of systems. Ontario has OHIP+, which covers prescription drugs for those under 25. The Trillium Drug Plan covers prescriptions for those who cannot otherwise afford important or lifesaving medications. Those over 65 are covered by the Ontario Drug Benefit program. Other provinces have similar systems. Those who are lucky get full or partial drug coverage from their employer. Those on social assistance are also able to access a limited number of government-approved medications. The problem is that this patchwork leaves many still paying out of pocket, choosing between food and medication, taking less medication than prescribed, or simply going without necessary medications. Imagine this: you go to the doctor and are diagnosed with diabetes. However, you are self-employed, unemployed, or working part-time, and therefore your employer does not cover prescription drugs. You simply cannot afford your crucial medications, such as insulin. Therefore, you go without or skip doses. Your condition worsens, and you end up in hospital or with another chronic illness, such as heart disease. This is not only bad for the health of the individual; it increases the cost of healthcare provision. This situation and others like it can be avoided with truly universal, single-payer pharmacare in Canada.
Why should students and other young people care? Most of us do not need prescriptions at the moment or are covered by OHIP+. We also see our parents’ generation who have been effectively covered for a lifetime by their employer’s insurance plans. The problem is we will one day graduate into a labour market that is radically different from that of our parents’ generation. Many students already feel the strain of the ‘gig economy,’ and work two or more jobs to pay for tuition, rent, and textbooks. The sad news is the gig economy is here to stay. Employers are consistently hiring part-timers or contract workers. Many, especially in creative disciplines, will spend a lifetime freelancing. Even if one has steady full-time work, fewer employers are offering full benefit packages, increasing drug co-pays substantially. The effects of automation and AI are also starting to be felt as non-skilled jobs disappear, leaving many unemployed and uninsured. All of us will need one or more medications at some point in our lives. Students today stand at a unique juncture in the history of the labour market. For this reason, we must seize this moment and demand universal pharmacare.
Pharmacare is truly a project of national importance on the scale of Medicare. This budget should inspire hope, but it is not enough to study the issue and simply add another patch to the quilt of coverage. Only single-payer pharmacare, not a patchwork approach, has the potential to address the lack of coverage most Canadian youth and young adults will soon be facing. This is also a bi-partisan issue: progressives understand this to be an issue of rights and justice, while many conservatives see it as the chance to eliminate the various bureaucracies which currently administer multiple drug benefit programs. A single-payer system is also the only way to harness government buying power on the scale necessary to lower prescription drug prices.
It is incumbent upon young people to not let this moment out of our grasp. Write your local MP or the committees studying this issue, organize petitions, rally, and talk to friends and family so that Canada can complete the work of Medicare and offer quality drug coverage to all citizens.