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National pharmacare will make life more affordable

Brittany Andrew-Amofah is the Broadbent Institute's Senior Policy and Research Analyst and Rebecca Cheff is a Researcher at the Welleslesy Institute.

What would you do if you had to make the decision between paying for prescription medications and paying the rent? Sadly, too many Canadians are faced with this impossible dilemma every day. In our first blog in this series, we wrote about the ‘affordability anxiety’ that Canadians face as they make everyday choices that impact their health and well-being. In this blog, we look at how the cost of medication feeds into affordability.

On average, Canadian families spend $450 per year out-of-pocket on prescribed medications. We know medication costs can be unaffordable, sometimes unexpected, and can eat away at family budgets for other important expenses, like groceries, housing costs, or emergency savings. 

We also know that when medications are expensive, people don’t take them – instead putting money towards other important needs like food and shelter – at the possible detriment of their health. Eventually this trade-off could lead to poorer health and increased use of other health services. 

National pharmacare is a solution that helps make life more affordable while ensuring that Canadians have access to the medications they need.

The issue at hand

In Canada, we rely on benefits provided by our employers and a patchwork of government programs to provide medication coverage. As a result, our access to affordable medications is determined by where we work and how much we earn — not by our needs. The numbers tell the story: one in five Canadians do not have sufficient or any medication coverage. That means roughly 6.2M Canadians struggle to pay for prescription medications.

Who does this affect?

Wellesley Institute found that part-time, recent immigrant, racialized, and millennial workers aged 25-34, in Ontario are all less likely to have medication coverage. The current approach places those who aren’t covered by employer or private plan at risk. 

With the decline of full-time work and the rise of the gig economy, more and more workers don’t have access to employer benefits. Wellesley Institute also found that this gap is even higher for newcomers. In Ontario, four in 10 workers who have recently immigrated do not have medication coverage at all, and one in four Ontarians report reducing or skipping their medication use due to their cost. 

Considering all this it is understandable that anxiety around healthcare affordability is top of mind for Canadians. A recent poll commissioned by the Broadbent Institute captured the anxiety and worry Canadians have about affordability. Fifty-seven per cent of Canadians ranked issues tied to cost of living — with 18 per cent of that citing out-of-pocket health costs as a priority. 

Addressing affordability should provide a pathway for our ourselves and our families to thrive, instead of merely getting by. Eliminating the barriers that prevent access to life-saving drugs are a part of that. 

What can we do about it?

A model for public pharmacare that leaves no Canadian behind is a solution that Broadbent and Wellesley have championed from the start. This year, the federal government’s Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare put forward such a recommendation. The report recommended that the federal government implement a universal, single-payer public pharmacare plan and stressed its urgency. Over 12 months, the Advisory Council spoke with health care leaders, patients, and other stakeholders, who expressed the need for pharmacare – a move stakeholders have been calling for, for decades.

Both Broadbent and Wellesley have released reports that propose frameworks which reinforce the recommendations made by the Advisory Council. The framework charts a path that would enroll every Canadian into a public government program. The framework follows the same logic and structure of universal healthcare in Canada, with the federal government introducing legislation to expand health care coverage to include prescription drugs and entering into agreements with provincial/territorial governments to deliver equal access regardless of age, income or employment status. 

Other suggestions on how to make pharmacare a reality have been posited, and they all have one thing in common – the underlying belief that no Canadian should go broke in exchange for their health.

Transferring the responsibility of medication coverage from primarily the private sector towards public plans, will provide consistency in coverage across the country resulting in greater accountability, predictability and reliability in our healthcare system. 

Our current approach is leaving too many Canadians behind. Specifically, it leaves diverse, young workers and families without the healthcare coverage they need. Universal pharmacare will make life more affordable – allowing more Canadians to feel both immediate and long-term financial relief. A critical piece of making life affordable should be ensuring that every Canadian thrives; universal, single-payer pharmacare is a key policy that helps us get there. 


This blog is part of a three-part series that explores affordability and health, in partnership with the Wellesley Institute. Find the introductory blog here