Patient advocate applauds universal pharmacare plan aimed at improving access

WATCH: The Advisory Council released a report on Wednesday recommending the $15 billion program that would help pay for essential drugs. Alicia Draus reports.

In the North End of Halifax, N.S., patient advocate Bill Swan sits in a park with a big smile on his face.

“I’m really excited,” he said about the report that was released by The Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare on Wednesday.

The report recommended a $15-billion universal single-payer pharmacare program.

“Basically it will get rid of a lot of these programs that stop people from getting access,” said Swan.

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READ MORE: Canada should have universal, single-payer public pharmacare, says advisory council

For the past three years Swan has been collecting stories from people, about their experiences with the current drug system in Canada, for his project called “Faces of Pharmacare.”

He also wrote patient stories for the released report after being contacted by the council.

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Swan says it was those stories that helped shed light on why a national pharamcare plan is needed. He gives the example of a woman in Manitoba.

“She had this health issue, they couldn’t figure it out. After a year they figured out she had this salt metabolism thing,” he said.

READ MORE: Canada’s national pharmacare should include a national drug agency and formulary: report

“The last time she was [being checked] she vomited so hard she had a heart attack. When she came out they gave her $6,000 worth of scripts. She makes $17,000 a year and doesn’t have coverage.”

Dartmouth resident Candice Colwell understands well the high price of medications. She was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis twelve years ago. After trying out various medications over the years she finally found one that worked for her.

“Prior to the medication I was using a cane, almost having to use a walker, but the medications have essentially changed my life,” said Colwell.

READ MORE: Health Canada’s drug safety warnings not consistent with other countries’: report

But the medication isn’t cheap. Hers cost $20,000 a dose. She gets it through an infusion, and for it to be effective, it has to be done twice.

“The first time it’s done five days in a row, so if you think about that it’s $20,000 each of the five days,” she said. The second time, she got three doses in as many days.

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Colwell was fortunate to have it covered through her insurance at the time, but she’s since changed plans and the cost is no longer covered.

WATCH: Expert panel recommends universal, single-payer public pharmacare

Advisory council recommends feds pay for incremental costs of national medicare
Advisory council recommends feds pay for incremental costs of national medicare

“So should I have to get a third dose I don’t know what I would do to be able to afford that,” she said.

Colwell says she supports a universal pharamacare program, as long as it includes all medications for MS.

“We have free health care in Canada so if you’re going to have health care through a doctor you should be able to get what the doctor states you should get to help you, so something needs to happen so that you can,” she said.

Drug costs should go down

While many drugs can be costly, Swan says a universal pharmacare plan will help decrease those prices.

“We will suddenly have a single buyer and that is probably the most important reason for pharmacare,” he said.

Having a single buyer would mean being able to buy more in bulk, and that drug prices would be negotiated for all of Canada rather than by individual provinces. Swan points to New Zealand as an example where this works well.

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“New Zealand pays about a cent a piece for a drug called amlodiphine for blood pressure. We pay about 10 cents a pill – for a drug that’s made in Canada,” Swan said.

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Chris Parsons with the Nova Scotia Health Coalition says this is one of the reasons they’ve been pushing for pharmacare for years, and he too is applauding the report.

“It’s almost everything that we’ve been asking for half a decade in terms of really pushing forward a pharmacare plan that covers everyone, that’s universal, simple to use and will save Canadians money in the long run,” said Parsons.

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Currently, the proposed plan would include a co-payment between $2-$5 for drugs with no-one paying more than $100 a year. While Parsons says this a huge step forward, he hopes that eventually they could move to eliminate any form of payment.

“Any fee is a barrier to people getting the medication that they need,” Parsons said.