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If Liberals need more time to deliver pharmacare bill, 'more results' expected: NDP

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If the federal Liberals need more time to make good on their commitment to pass pharmacare legislation this year, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will be expecting "more results," in exchange.

Amid a looming deadline and speculation over what would happen to the Liberal-NDP deal if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government cannot keep their promise, on Monday the federal NDP said it doesn't plan to ease off their pressure, while signalling they are considering what comes next if no bill materializes in 2023.

"Negotiations are still ongoing and our talks remain constructive. We believe there is enough time left for the government to honour its commitment," said NDP Director of Communications Alana Cahill in a statement to CTV News.

"If more time is required, we expect more results for Canadians," she said.

As of Monday, just 15 scheduled sitting days remain before the House of Commons takes a month-long holiday hiatus, and the expected bill to set up a national pharmacare framework has yet to even be introduced or put on notice as soon-to-be-incoming.

Even if the Liberals do manage to present a bill in the next few weeks, with early adjournments common this time of year, and despite the Senate being slated to sit until Dec. 22, Health Minister Mark Holland has acknowledged the tight timeline.

The former government House leader—previously tasked with managing priority legislation's movement through all legislative stages— has expressed doubts about the feasibility of actually passing the bill through both chambers in time to keep this promise, suggesting tabling the bill may be a more realistic target.

"I think the spirit of the agreement was always that we would work towards having something introduced, to show people the path forward," Holland told reporters on Parliament Hill last week, noting the cost of medications are front of mind for many Canadians facing challenges making ends meet.

"What they want to see is what action we can come up with, and it's important to get that right," Holland said. "The conversations have been productive. I think we need to give space for those to continue."

CTV News asked Holland's office Monday to comment specifically on whether the Liberals have sought an extension, whether there is willingness amid the talks to stretch the deadline into 2024, or if the plan remains to table the bill by year's end.

The Liberals presented a first draft of the bill to New Democrats earlier this fall but that version was rejected as "insufficient," by Singh.

Cahill told CTV News on Monday that the initial proposed version of the legislation "missed the mark and didn’t guarantee coverage for all Canadians."

WHAT WAS PHARMACARE PROMISE?

Moving on a national pharmacare program was one of the core planks of the two-party agreement meant to provide the minority Liberal government parliamentary stability until June 2025, in exchange for progress on progressive issues.

Specifically what the two parties agreed to in their confidence-and-supply deal inked in March 2022, was that the government has to first pass a "Canada Pharmacare Act" setting up the national framework for the drug plan, by the end of 2023. 

Under the banner of "continuing progress towards a universal national pharmacare program," the deal then would see the government task the National Drug Agency to develop a national formulary of essential medicines and a bulk purchasing plan that is expected to be in place by the time the deal ends.

During the New Democrat's October policy convention, delegates drew a line in the sand, making it clear through an emergency resolution that action on a universal and fully public pharmacare was non-negotiable if the two-party deal is to remain in effect. 

NDP National Director Anne McGrath also indicated in an interview with The Canadian Press, that her party would be ready and willing to fight the next election over pharmacare, if the Liberals fail to act and the New Democrats walk away from the deal. 

Canadians currently pay for their prescription drugs through a mix of public plans, private insurance and out-of-pocket spending.

A report commissioned for the government in 2019 estimated that Canadians currently rely on a "confusing patchwork" of more than 100 public prescription drug plans and more than 100,000 private plans, recommending a universal approach. 

CURRENT COST REALITY

Funding for pharmacare was not included in the 2023 federal budget tabled last spring, nor was it included in last week's fall economic statement.

While the required legislation would not necessitate any immediate spending, absence of plans for future spending has raised questions in Ottawa about commitment to the pledge. 

In an October report, Canada's parliamentary budget officer estimated a single-payer universal drug plan would cost provincial and federal governments an additional $11.2 billion in 2024-2025, rising to $13.4 billion in 2027-2028. 

With these estimated costs in mind, and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland pledging last week a new fiscal anchor of aiming to keep deficits below one per cent of GDP beginning in 2026-2027, Holland said last week that the "constrained fiscal environment," is playing a role in the time these negotiations are taking.

"These aren't easy conversations and by their nature, are taking time and deliberation," Holland said.

Asked about the absence of any future earmarked funding in the context of Freeland's new fiscal anchor, Singh noted there was "no monetary attachment in the whole agreement."

He suggested that even with this deal, a functioning program Canadians can make claims towards, is likely years away.

"Just like the Canada Health Act. It took years to make it happen. It first required the legal framework, and then it required a plan, and then it required to get the provinces on board," Singh said.

With files from CTV News' Annie Bergeron-Oliver 

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