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Many Canadians say prescription costs are so high they're having to split their pills or skip doses

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As the federal government negotiates a pharmacare deal to address medication coverage, a new survey reveals that some Canadians are resorting to cost-cutting means to save on critical prescriptions.

A Leger poll, commissioned by Heart & Stroke and the Canadian Cancer Society, found that nearly one in four Canadians (22 per cent) have reported splitting pills, skipping doses, or deciding not to renew or fill their prescriptions due to high costs.

The poll also found that more than one in four (28 per cent) have made difficult choices in order to afford medication, like reducing grocery spending, delaying payments on rent, mortgage or utility bills, and incurring debt.

"Having to pay for lifesaving prescription medication, on top of all the other out-of-pocket costs that come with a cancer diagnosis, places a burden on people that many cannot afford," Canadian Cancer Society CEO Andrea Seale said in a press release. "No one should have to forgo the medicines they need because they can't personally afford them."

Additionally, the poll found that one in 10 Canadians with chronic conditions have ended up in an emergency room due to worsening health because they were unable to afford prescription medications.

As for who bears the responsibility to ensure prescription drug coverage for all people living in Canada, 82 per cent believe the federal government is accountable.

Heart & Stroke CEO Doug Roth says, "It's time for the federal government to step up" and change prescription drug coverage through a national pharmacare program.

A 2019 federal government pharmacare report noted that 7.5 million people in Canada either don't have sufficient drug coverage or don't have any prescription drug insurance.

According to Heart & Stroke, universal coverage of essential drugs would save the health-care system an average of $1,488 per patient per year by preventing unexpected trips to the hospital.

"We're advocating for this fiscally responsible option which will reduce pressure on the healthcare system, including by cutting costs," Roth said. "You cannot put a price on a life. But if we put it in terms of dollars and cents alone, controlling a condition such as high blood pressure with key prescription medications is more cost effective than the specialized care required for more serious health consequences such as a stroke or heart attack because someone could not afford their medication."

A statement from the federal health minister's office, provided to CTV News, said a plan for improving access to medication is in motion.

"We're advancing the 'National Strategy for Drugs for Rare Diseases' which will improve access to new and emerging drugs, as well as support enhanced access to existing drugs, early diagnosis and screening for rare diseases," the minister's office said. "We're also establishing a Canadian Drug Agency to create the framework and system coordination required to make our drug system more accessible, sustainable and prepared for the future."

The Liberals and NDP are negotiating a pharmacare plan they hope to table by their March 1 deadline. However, it's "not looking promising at the moment," according to Anne McGrath, a lead negotiator for the parties' confidence-and-supply agreement.

If the parties reach a deal, they plan to begin by launching with a select few drug categories while they continue to work on a more robust national drug plan, two sources with knowledge of the talks told The Canadian Press.

The parties have already agreed to cover birth control through a single-payer program in the first go around, and they are also in talks to include diabetes drugs in the program.

The NDP is pushing for more drug categories to be included, but the Liberals have raised concerns about costs, said the sources, who were granted anonymity because they aren't authorized to speak publicly about the closed negotiations. There is also more work to do to determine which drugs in each category would make the cut for the initial program.

"Every diabetic in this country, we want to make sure that they can get the insulin they need," NDP health critic Don Davies said Wednesday. "Every young woman who needs contraception, we want to make sure she can get the contraception she needs. These are the kinds of things that we're working toward."

With files from The Canadian Press

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