NDP pledges universal pharmacare, looks to distinguish party from Liberals

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh walks along the waterfront in Windsor, Ont. on Wednesday, August 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Universal pharmacare would start as early as next year under a New Democrat government, leader Jagmeet Singh said Friday, though the path to achieving that goal remains murky.

At a campaign stop in Thunder Bay, Ont., the New Democrat leader said millions of Canadians can’t afford the medication they need, and that his single-payer public plan would save an average family $550 per year while costing Ottawa billions.

Singh said he would negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies and work with the provinces to make prescription drugs free, saving provincial health systems money and costing employers who provide benefits less.

“People won’t get sick because they couldn’t get medication they needed. People won’t get even worse because they couldn’t maintain their health,” he said.

The plan, which Singh would aim to implement by late 2022, would cost the federal government $10.7 billion annually but ultimately save provinces $4.2 billion in prescription drug spending, the NDP said.

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It would also require provinces to leverage their collective negotiating power and haggle for lower prices, he said, a complex undertaking.

“I know it’s going to be hard work but it’s going to save families money, it’s going to be good for our health-care system,” Singh said, speaking from the city represented by Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

“When we started with universal health care, which is now one of our national treasures – something that everyone believes in _ initially every province didn’t agree. Once a province agreed, we signed an agreement,” he said. “We would like that as well.”

Universal pharmacare folds into a sweeping NDP pledge to create national plans for dental and mental health care, and seeks to distinguish New Democrats from a Liberal party that has stressed similar issues and included pharmacare in its platform as far back as 1997. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has also made mental health care one of the “five pillars” of the Tory platform.

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Singh has pointed to NDP moves in the House of Commons that were opposed by Liberal and Conservative MPs over the past year, including a private member’s bill to usher in universal drug coverage and a motion to abolish for-profit long-term care.

“The Liberals have this strategy: ‘Why deliver something when we can just promise it?”’ said Singh, making his pitch ahead of the Sept. 20 election.

In 2019, an advisory council appointed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government recommended a $15 billion-per-year, single-payer pharmacare system. Dr. Eric Hoskins, who chaired the council, acknowledged “significant incremental costs” to crafting universal coverage, but said in the now-shelved report that Canadians already pick up that tab.

The scheme, which he said should take five years to reach comprehensive coverage, proposed $2 co-payment for common drugs and $5 for rarer medications. The fee would be waived for low-income patients.

The Conservatives’ platform says they will negotiate constructively with the industry to cut drug prices while the Liberal budget in April repeated the government’s 2019 pledge of $500 million for a program covering high-cost drugs for rare diseases.

The NDP plan would cover a “very broad formulary,” rather than the 125 drugs covered under the initial stage of a plan proposed by the Ontario NDP in 2017, Singh said.

New Democrats would “absolutely” include medical use of cannabis under their single-payer system, he added.

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Singh also reiterated his pledge to revive domestic production of vaccines and “critical” prescription drugs by establishing publicly owned manufacturing facilities.

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