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Liberals 'committed' to pharmacare, looking at 'responsible ways' to proceed: Trudeau

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With his lead legislative manager acknowledging the Liberals likely won't get a pharmacare bill by the end of this year as promised, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government has "been committed" but is looking at "responsible ways" to proceed.

Asked about the impending deadline and speculation over the Liberals' commitment to a universal drug plan, Trudeau said the Liberals are "ready to go" on a bill, but work continues with the NDP "to try and make sure that it's as ambitious" as it can be, amid the current economic context.

"People are paying too much for medications in this country. They should never have to decide between paying for rent or food and medications, and that's what we're working on together," Trudeau said.

Passing a "Canada Pharmacare Act" in 2023 to set up a framework for the drug plan 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 policies.

Asked whether the minority Liberals can still afford a multibillion-dollar national pharmacare plan, in light of his government's new vow to keep deficits below one per cent of GDP, Trudeau said they've already taken some measures to lower drug costs, but they "will continue to work in responsible ways to move forward."

These questions are being raised now, with less than three weeks left in the House sitting calendar and the NDP signalling on Monday that if the federal government needs more time to make good on its confidence-and-supply deal commitment to pass pharmacare legislation this year, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will be expecting "more results" in exchange.

Weighing in on the timeline, Government House Leader Karina Gould said while she's confident the two parties will land on an agreeable draft bill, "I don't think we're going to get it passed by the end of this year, but we'll definitely keep working."

Health Minister Mark Holland told reporters earlier on Tuesday that constructive negotiations are ongoing with the federal New Democrats, in hopes of coming to an agreement on at least tabling legislation before the year ends. He said so far, the Liberals have not requested more time.

"I said from the beginning on this that what matters is to get it right," Holland said, rejecting suggestions that pressure from major pharmaceutical firms is behind the Liberals' "inertia" on this file, as NDP House Leader Peter Julian described it.

"When these conversations are as difficult and as challenging as they are, it is easy for time to pass by and for, you know, conversations to take more time," he said.

Also speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the NDP's Julian said it's clear to him the government "needs more time," after his party rejected the first version of the draft bill the Liberals presented them, while seeming to dismiss suggestions that this issue is one they'd be willing to tear up their two-party pact over.

"They're going to have to provide more help to Canadians and that is something that we will continue to push on," Julian said, before facing a barrage of questions from reporters about what "more help" the NDP wants the government to come forward with.

"Our benchmark is moving forward on pharmacare so that we have that foundation in place and we know that there are other steps that will follow over the next couple of years. But for us, that foundation is vitally important and we're going to continue to push for that," Julian said. "Stay tuned."

Dr. Eric Hoskins — who chaired the 2019 Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare — told CTV News Channel's Power Play host Vassy Kapelos in an interview Tuesday he's "very hopeful" the federal government can introduce legislation by the December deadline.

But Hoskins also said Trudeau and Singh are making "absolutely the right decision not to get bound by a timeline."

Hoskins, who is also a former Liberal health minister in Ontario, said he thinks it's an "absolute necessity" to ensure pharmacare becomes a reality.

He'll be watching for what type of model is introduced, he said, adding he and his advisory council recommended a single-payer public program universal to all Canadians.

"It's not only a pocketbook issue, this is great policy," he said, adding Canadians should not have to choose between putting food on the table, heating their homes, or purchasing medication. "I'm confident that the folks that are involved in these negotiations know that and want to make this happen."

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