Universal pharmacare could be coming to Canada.

In its budget, which was unveiled Tuesday, the Liberal government announced that it would be creating an Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare to “ensure every Canadian has access to the medicine they need.”

In other words, Ottawa may soon be covering your essential prescription drugs in what looks to be the single biggest addition to Canada’s universal health care system since the passage of the Medical Care Act in 1966.

“It's a really important issue,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau told reporters before the budget was tabled on Tuesday. “It's, in our estimation, just not acceptable that a significant subset of the population doesn't have access to pharmaceutical products.”

According to the Liberals, an estimated 10 per cent of Canadians cannot afford their prescription medication. That figure is backed by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), a national trade union centre that has long been pushing for a federal pharmacare plan.

“Today, the only place where all Canadians are covered is in the hospital,” the CLC has previously stated. “Canada is the only developed country in the world with a universal health care program that doesn’t include a universal prescription drug plan.”

The Ontario example

The advisory council will be chaired by Dr. Eric Hoskins, a physician who served as Ontario’s health minister from 2014 until his Feb. 26 resignation.

Under Hoskins’ stewardship, the Ontario government implemented a much-lauded pharmacare plan that covers more than 4,400 medications for people under the age of 25.

“This is really about putting Canadians first and addressing that challenging issue of affordability and access and equity,” Hoskins told reporters on Tuesday.

Hoskins’ advisory council has been tasked consulting with experts, provinces, territories and Indigenous groups to create a report and provide recommendations on how to implement the proposed program.

“This is something that I’m so passionate about,” Hoskins added. “I’m really gratified to have the opportunity.”

A political manoeuvre?

The advisory council’s report is expected to be unveiled in the spring of 2019, leading to speculation that the Liberals aim to make pharmacare a cornerstone of their 2019 election campaign, thus taking the wind out of the sails of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party proposed a similar plan in the House of Commons earlier this year.

“The government voted against that plan,” Singh told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. “So it doesn’t show a true commitment to actually implementing pharmacare.”

Singh blasted the government for not doing more to hasten the implementation of such a “vitally important” program.

“What the government’s proposing is not a plan -- this is a fantasy,” he said. “We don’t see even a single dollar of investment in a plan to implement pharmacare… This government is just announcing a study, and a study that has no funding behind it.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, however, heralded the pharmacare plan as the “only big idea” in the budget. Like Singh, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer criticized the plan as being “a lot of talk, no detail.”

“Let’s keep in mind who they’ve asked to lead the charge on this: Kathleen Wynne’s former minister,” Scheer said in an interview with CTV News Tuesday evening.

“Now, you’ll pardon me if I don’t have a lot of confidence in anything coming out of the Liberal government of Ontario,” Scheer added. “Kathleen Wynne’s government haven’t been able to very much very well.”

Saving Money

In a Sept. 2017 report, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer said that a national universal pharmacare program could cost the government upwards of $19.3 billion a year. While that figure is vast, it belies an estimated $4.2 billion in potential savings on drugs in the country, which would come from bulk purchases of pharmaceuticals by Health Canada as well as an increased use of generic medication.

That same report also estimated that roughly $28.5 billion was spent on prescription drugs in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, with public and private insurance plans covering all but $4.7 billion, which was paid out-of-pocket by Canadians.

Eliminating such costs, a 2015 poll from Angus Reid suggests, would help the 23 per cent of Canadians who reported “skipping doses, splitting pills, or simply not filling their prescriptions” because they could not afford the medication prescribed to them. Nearly one million Canadians, a recent study added, have given up food or heating to afford their prescriptions. According to The Conference Board of Canada, approximately 4.1 million Canadians have no public or private prescription drug plan.

Changing lives

Lene Andersen spends between $300 and $400 per month, out-of-pocket, to treat her rheumatoid arthritis.

“It basically puts me in the situation where come the third week of the month I have to dip into my savings just to make ends,” she told CTV News. “It is a real strain.”

Andersen welcomed Tuesday’s news, saying it could “make a tremendous difference in my life.”

“Having an illness that requires medication is not a choice, and the fact that you get put in a situation of choosing between groceries and rent or new shoes for your kids and the medication that allows you to function is just horrific,” she said. “I think a national pharmacare program would be a real lifesaver for a lot of people.”

Colleen Flood, a law professor and the director of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Health Law Ethics and Policy, agrees wholeheartedly, saying that universal pharmacare is “long overdue” in Canada.

“There is no doubt that universal pharmacare will improve lives and save lives,” Flood told CTV News. “People that need essential medications are losing their lives presently in Canada. I am sure that is not the Canada we want to live in. Universal pharmacare is going to help to correct that problem.”

With files from CTV News’ medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip and a report from The Canadian Press