Today, Canada’s universal health-care system is as popular as it was when it was first introduced decades ago. Most Canadians praise our system as proof of an empathetic society. To this day, political parties have not dared to challenge its dominance in Canadian popular opinion.
The unfortunate truth is, however, our universal system isn’t as comprehensive as the original blueprint was designed to be. The historic movement toward equitable access to medicare started with great momentum in the 1950s and slowly met an impasse in the political arena afterward.
After a fateful political campaign in the small yet politically influential province of Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas — then leader of the province’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — won a sweeping majority on the party’s promise to introduce fair and equitable health care to all provincial residents on June 8, 1960.
In the following year, the popularity of universal medicare spread promptly from Saskatchewan into national debate. As a result, a Royal Commission was established to analyze the benefits and costs of a Canadian public health-care system.
After being appointed chair of the commission, conservative-leaning justice Emmett Hall shocked the nation by concluding all facets of medical care should be bundled into one single-payer system to maximize and ensure public administration, accessibility, comprehensiveness, universality and portability. In 1966, the Medical Care Act passed, officially setting Canada on a path toward a national health-care system.
However, despite the report’s conclusion in 1961, there remain large gaps in Canada’s health-care framework. Pharmaceutical insurance continues to be dominated by private, for-profit enterprises and the nation’s public health coverage fails as soon as Canadians are handed a prescription.
Over 50 years ago, Hall recommended that “in view of the high cost of many of the new life-saving, life-sustaining and disease-preventing medicines, prescribed drugs should be introduced as a benefit of the public health services program.” Yet Canada remains the only nation with a universal health-care system that does not include universal pharmaceutical coverage. As a result, nearly one in five Canadians don’t have access to drug insurance. Worse yet, one in 10 cannot afford prescription drugs. These stats lead to the death of up to 640 Canadians yearly.
With the upcoming election on Sept. 20, universal pharmacare is gearing up to become a key wedge issue. However, although the topic features contentious debate between parties, according to a national survey completed in 2019 by Canadian research firm Abacus Data, a majority of voters rank universal pharmacare as their top priority for parliamentary cooperation.
Beyond this, the survey concluded that 89 per cent of New Democratic Party (NDP) voters, 86 per cent of Green party voters, 84 per cent of Liberal party voters, 78 per cent of Bloc Québécois voters and 66 per cent of Conservative party voters support the idea of incorporating pharmacare into Canada’s single-tiered health-care system.
So, why has pharmacare been a wedge issue for such a prolonged period when, according to principles of representational democracy, it should be a bipartisan issue? In large part, it is the same barrier that moderated Canada’s medicare plan in the first place — people who serve to profit from private pockets of medicare continue to have a large influence in the political arena.
Most arguments against a national pharmacare plan claim the program would be far too expensive for government coffers to handle. According to a 2017 report done by the parliamentary budget officer, a nonpartisan researcher that advises the parliament, a universal pharmacare system would have cost roughly $20 billion if it was established in 2015 and would save Canadians about $4 billion a year in expenses. This is not to mention all the medical expenses saved by giving Canadians access to preventative prescription drugs.
Considering Canada would actually save money by implementing a better organized pharmacare plan, all the while ensuring every citizen — regardless of socioeconomic status — receives adequate medication, those at the top would be the only players served losses. To be precise, private insurance and pharmaceutical companies would miss out on approximately $8,000 in profits per minute.
Just like the infamous anti-medicare doctors’ strike in 1962, special interest groups with significant resources influence our ability to make meaningful steps toward a pharmacare agenda.
Elections have been won and lost because of this issue. In 2019, the Liberal party campaigned on a plan to implement pharmacare likely stealing a significant portion of votes from the NDP, which also prioritized this issue. In February 2021, however, the NDP tabled a bill that would have kickstarted parliamentary progress toward universal pharmacare — all but two Liberal members of parliament (MP) teamed up with the Conservative party to stop the bill in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The issue now extends beyond the Liberal party’s inability to reach consensus in parliament — it has actively attacked Canadians’ chances to pursue policy reform that every nine in 10 Canadians approve of.
Time and time again, the Liberal party has succumbed to the interests of corporate giants. So far, the Liberal party has promised to include pharmacare in its political agenda since 1997 and is doing so again this year. It appears fighting for Canadians’ right to life-saving pharmaceuticals only matters to Liberal MPs when their power is in jeopardy. When the Liberals control the House of Commons, however, their true colours shine through — one need only remember the impolitic tweet from Toronto Liberal MP Adam Vaughan when he addressed blocking the NDP’s pharmacare bill: “Who gives a fuck.”
As Tommy Douglas predicted, “Unless there is a concerted effort to apply pressure on the federal and provincial governments, the erosion of medicare will continue unabated and might even be accelerated.” If we wish to live up to Douglas’s standards for Canadian health care pharmacare must be made a priority. Political excuses, lack of reform and broken promises are killing Canadians.