March 16, 2015 12:00 pm

Universal drug plan? Docs say it would save money, help Canadians

Canada is the only developed nation with universal health insurance that doesn’t also offer universal prescription drug coverage.

(Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
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Canadians celebrate their universal health care, but why doesn’t the country have its own universal drug plan? While it may sound like an expensive venture, new research conducted by Canadian doctors suggests that the idea is feasible and could even save taxpayers money.

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Right now, provinces strike up their own individual deals with drug companies, so they’re missing out on opportunities to buy in bulk as a whole nation. If Canadian health officials united to negotiate better prices and pooled their resources spent on private and public drug plans, they’d have the tools to run a universal drug plan, according to two doctors.

“This has been on the radar many times – commissions have recommended it, policymakers talk about it, it’s been an election issue. There’s definite awareness that we’d do much better if we came together and worked together in bulk purchasing,” Dr. Danielle Martin, a Women’s College Hospital physician and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News.

“[Universal drug coverage] is entirely within reach and would even be cost neutral. You wouldn’t be spending one penny more than we do now,” she said.

READ MORE: Canada losing out on negotiating lower drug prices, study says

Canadians might remember Martin for calling out American officials who alleged that doctors and patients were fleeing Canada for greener pastures in the U.S. After a senator suggested that Canadians deal with lengthy wait lists, Martin defended the country’s health care system.

This time around, Martin and her University of British Columbia colleague Dr. Steven Morgan crunched the numbers for a potential universal drug plan.

The study modelled the hypothetical plan after other countries’ – Canada is the only developed nation with universal health insurance that doesn’t also offer universal prescription drug coverage.

About $22 billion was spent on prescription drug purchases in 2012-13. The researchers say that most prescriptions are already paid for by taxpayers who shell out $9.7 billion on public drug plans. Another $2.4 billion is spent on private drug plans for public servants.

READ MORE: Why critics say the EU trade deal will drive up Canada’s drug prices

Meanwhile, the private sector spends $5.7 billion on private insurance plans and uninsured patients pay $4.5 billion out of pocket for their prescriptions.

Keep in mind, one in 10 Canadians don’t take their prescribed medication or don’t even fill their prescriptions because they can’t afford the drugs. They cost the health care system too – they fall ill and end up in hospital needing care.

“Why is it that when you’re admitted to hospital and require medication, it’s publically covered but the second you walk out of the hospital bed and go home, that same life-saving medication you require is no longer covered? It’s perplexing,” Martin said.

Martin and Morgan say that if provinces pooled their resources and negotiated better prices with the help of buying in bulk, a universal drug plan would cut spending on prescription drugs in Canada by $7.3 billion per year.

READ MORE: Doctor who schooled US senator ‘thrilled’ by Canadian support

Prescription drug coverage is patchy with some provinces offering coverage for some drugs while excluding others. A universal plan would see the creation of a single national list of prescribed drugs that are covered based on the best available medical evidence at the time.

With standardized guidelines in place, there’d be less inappropriate or unnecessary prescribing, Martin says.

Low-income Canadians would be exempt from making any payments, while Canadians with a higher income would have to pay a small co-payment out of pocket, say, $5. If doctors prescribe a recommended therapy but you decide you want the more expensive option, you’d pay extra.

With a universal drug plan in place, employers and unions that provide employee drug benefits would have $8.2 billion freed up – that’s a lot of cash to pour back into the economy.

READ MORE: Snapshot of health care in Canada – What you need to know

The researchers hope their findings will stir up discussion with the medical community, and with politicians and everyday Canadians.

Their full findings were published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Read the full study here.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© 2015 Shaw Media

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