Groups hope to make national pharmacare program an election issue
Lene Andersen, 52, said she spends roughly $350 to $400 a month out of her own pocket for a range of medications that help her cope with the aches and pains related to her rheumatoid arthritis.
Andersen, who is disabled and lives on a fixed budget, said that the drain on her wallet is "nauseating," but she depends on the prescriptions to live her everyday life.
"Being sick is already extremely difficult, and having to worry about money for medication on top of it just adds an incredible strain," said Andersen.
And her monthly bills, along with her other expenses, started to add up. Eventually she was forced to start paying for her medications with her credit card. In the end, Andersen said she racked up "probably upwards of $10,000" in debt to pay for her medication.
"It is an incredibly stressful situation watching your debt just inch higher every month because you could just never catch up," said Andersen
"It just it made me feel like there was no way out and that I was being inevitably sucked into this black hole of debt with no solutions."
Andersen's story isn't unique.
• Twenty per cent of Canadians spend $500 or more a year on prescriptions.
• A July survey by The Angus Reid Institute found that 31 per cent of Canadians have friends or family who cannot afford to pay for medications.
• Another 23 per cent of participants reported that they themselves, or someone in their household, did not take their prescriptions "as prescribed, if at all" in the past year because of the cost.
There has been a growing push to put a national pharmacare program on the agenda for the upcoming federal election. In response to the provinces’ request for a national pharmacare program, the Conservative government said in June that it would work with the provinces and territories on bulk purchases of drugs before "spending more money" on a pharmacare plan.
So far, only the Green Party has endorsed a national drug plan and the other parties' stances are unclear.
For decades health groups have called for universal coverage. Canada remains the only developed country with universal health care that doesn't also include universal prescription drug coverage.
Canadians overwhelmingly seem open to the idea of a national pharmacare program. The Angus Reid survey also found that 91 per cent of Canadians "express support" for the concept.
And many experts agree.
A study published by The Pharmaceutical Policy Research Collaboration at the University of British Columbia in July found that "delaying implementation is no longer defensible."
The six health policy experts who authored the study recommend that Canada introduces a national pharmacare program by 2020, or it will "continue to see negative impacts on patient health, our health care system, and the economy as a whole."
The report calls Canada's strategy "among the most expensive in the world," ranking it last among comparable countries with universal health care systems for drug prices and total spending on pharmaceuticals.
It added that the country also has the lowest levels of drug coverage, medicine access, and research and development in the same category.
However, the study says that a national pharmacare program can ameliorate many of these issues and would save Canadians "between $4 billion and $11 billion per year."
It estimates that the approach would save the private sector up to $10 billion and free up $3 billon across numerous layers of government that finance private drug coverage for public sector employees.
Earlier this week, the Canadian Diabetes Association also joined the chorus of voices calling for a national pharmacare program because Canadians with diabetes faced "onerous" expenses needed to pay for medications to manage their disease.
Dr. Danielle Martin, vice-president of medical affairs and health system solutions at the Women's College Hospital in Toronto, also believes that a national pharmacare program is the best approach to providing affordable health care.
Martin said it is "incredibly frustrating" knowing that she can prescribe an effective therapy for a medical condition, but that her patient won't be able to afford it.
She added that patients with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and HIV who can't afford prescriptions end up taking a greater toll on the health-care system.
"If we treat them, people can live long, healthy lives in community. But if they're undertreated or not treated effectively, those people end up in the emergency department or they end up being admitted to hospital -- things that are much, more expensive," said Martin.
And while the concept seems gaining traction among many Canadians, Martin hopes to see the idea become a reality in Ottawa.
"It seems in this instance the last ones to catch on are the politicians, and I am really hoping now that as we head towards the polls that we see that change," said Martin.
With a report by CTV Medical reporter Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip