Universal drug coverage will hit taxpayers, say insurers

CLHIA head Stephen Frank has responded to calls for single-payer, publically funded drug plans

Universal drug coverage will hit taxpayers, say insurers

Canada’s health and life insurers are resisting calls for publically funded universal pharmacare, as MPs debate the costs of a single-payer system.

On Wednesday, the Federal Standing Committee on Health released Pharmacare Now: Prescription Medicine Coverage for all Canadians, recommending a universal prescription drug program.

If adopted, this would replace the current system, where the majority of people are covered through employer-sponsored group plans.

The report was welcomed by national pharmacare advocates, but that sentiment isn’t shared by the life and health insurance body. President and CEO of the CLHIA, Stephen Frank, believes the committee’s recommendations would prove a costly financial burden on taxpayers, while not necessarily improving drug coverage.

“Our research shows that the 25 million people who have coverage of drug and other health services through group insurance plans want to make sure that prescription medicine is affordable for everyone, but do not want to put their health plans at risk,” he said. “Without changes, the approach tabled by the committee actually could reduce the quality of health benefit plans for millions of people."

Frank pointed out that a single-payer system would require governments to find more than $20 billion in tax revenues, and for that reason, he believes the best course of action is to maintain public-private collaboration.

"Everyone will need to make changes, and it makes sense that the best system is one that will ensure that patients have access to the medicines they need at affordable prices; ensure Canadians do not lose their existing group health benefit plans; and control costs to taxpayers," he said.

Addressing the House of Commons on Wednesday, Standing Committee on Health chair Bill Casey stated the case for universal pharmacare. 

"Canadians can save money and have better health outcomes with a national pharmacare program … The current patchwork of drug coverage in Canada is just not working. It's a very erratic system and as a result we pay more for pharmaceuticals than 26 other OECD countries."

The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that the cost of universal pharmacare would amount to $19 billion annually, but this number is disputed by a number of opposition MPs. The committee’s recommendations received a positive reception from a number of health groups, including Canadian Doctors for Medicare.  “Today, close to one million Canadians are cutting costs on food or heat to afford their medications and roughly three million Canadians are without basic drug coverage,” said Dr. Danyaal Raza, chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare. “Canada is the only high-income country with a universal health care system that does not include a universal drug plan. That needs to change.”


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