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Pharmacare talks with Liberals 'not looking very promising': NDP

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Talks between the Liberals and the NDP for pharmacare framework legislation are "not looking very promising at the moment," according to a lead negotiator for the parties' confidence-and-supply agreement.

The March 1 deadline is fast approaching for the federal government to table pharmacare framework legislation as part of its confidence-and-supply agreement with the NDP.

The pact sees the NDP prop up the Liberals until 2025 in exchange for progress on key priorities, including pharmacare.

Anne McGrath — who recently left her role as NDP national director to become leader Jagmeet Singh's "principal secretary" — said in a radio interview on The Vassy Kapelos Show on Wednesday that while she still thinks it's "entirely possible" the Liberals come forward with a plan in the next two weeks, "it is also entirely possible that it is not acceptable."

If the latter is the case, McGrath said, her advice would be that the NDP "take the position that the Liberals have walked away" from the confidence-and-supply deal, and the deal would come to an end.

She added, however, she thinks it would be "really unfortunate" if the parties scrapped the pact now.

"I've been pretty confident and optimistic about all of the things that we were able to achieve, the things we were able to push the Liberal government to do in the agreement, and I want to get those things done," she said. "But I don't think we should be willing to accept really weakened commitments, I think that we need to actually, as the agreement says, make progress."

The Liberals and the NDP had originally set a deadline to pass framework legislation by the end of last year, but in the fall decided to push the deadline to introduce that legislation to March 1.

"There were some negotiations that were getting closer, just up to Christmas time, so we agreed to an extension to see if we could get it over the finish line," McGrath said. "And I'm not sure if the commitment is there from the Liberals to actually do what is required."

McGrath said what the Liberals put forward to the NDP in the fall was "unacceptable," and they haven't seen any draft legislation since the new year.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux estimates the overall cost of a single-payer, universal pharmacare program would be about $11 billion a year.

And while Health Minister Mark Holland has cautioned that the federal government "can't afford this to be a massively expensive program," McGrath said she's "puzzled" by the price tag being the main deterrent for the Liberals.

"And I think it's disingenuous to talk about these large numbers, when they know, and we know, and I think probably you know, that that's not what we've been talking about in this initial stage," she said. "We want the legislative framework, and some beginning steps."

Last week, Singh warned he'd put the prime minister "on notice" over the issue, adding there will be "repercussions" if the Liberals don't table a sufficient piece of pharmacare framework legislation by next month.

He also signalled he'll consider a missed deadline to mean the Liberals have "walked away" from their confidence-and-supply agreement.

Then, on Tuesday, he doubled down, saying he told the prime minister and the Liberals they "can't keep stringing Canadians along," and he expects to see legislation that "lays out that foundation" for a single-payer, universal system.

"I feel like they may be missing a sense of urgency on this," McGrath said, adding there is certainly a sense of urgency on the part of the NDP, which already extended the deadline to table the framework legislation "in good faith."

Holland, in an interview with Kapelos that aired Sunday on CTV's Question Period, said the Liberals are not "pulling that fire alarm" on their deal with the NDP, and he has "every confidence" they'll meet the March 1 deadline.

When pressed on whether the framework will be for a single-payer system, however, Holland wouldn't specify, saying only that he is not "ideologically bound to any one option."

NDP health critic Don Davies, meanwhile, told reporters on Tuesday that his party has "drawn a red line" and insisted that a single-payer system is "a cornerstone" of the program, adding that any tabled legislation needs to at the very least "make progress toward that."

Davies specifically pointed to diabetes medication and contraception as two categories that he believes getting covered under a single-payer model is "eminently doable."

And McGrath told Kapelos a single-payer, universal system "was always (the) intent" in the NDP's deal with the Liberals.

"I don't know, potentially they were more concerned with political survival at that time or whatever," she said. "I don't know what it was, but somehow it seems to have dawned on them that this means actually doing something about it."

"It's been pretty clear all along where we have stood on this," she added.

With files from The Vassy Kapelos Show Producer Noah Wachter, CTV News' Rachel Hanes and CTVNews.ca's Senior Digital Parliamentary Reporter Rachel Aiello

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