Tracey urges the government to implement universal pharmacare

Ms. Tracey Ramsey (Essex, NDP)  

Madam Speaker, I am proud to rise today in support of this NDP motion that calls upon the government to have a meeting to start the conversation about implementing a universal pharmacare program. This is something that New Democrats have been fighting for since Tommy Douglas introduced and implemented public medicare in our country.

New Democrats refer to the amazing vision that Tommy Douglas had. His vision of a social system that is accessible to us all still guides us today. It is a fundamental belief that we are all in this world together, and that the only test of our character that matters is how we look after the least fortunate among us—how we look after each other, not how we look after ourselves—and that no matter what, people should get whatever health services they require, irrespective of their individual ability to pay. 

Tommy Douglas never intended to create such a gap in Canadian health care coverage. Prescription drugs and other services were always meant to be integrated into a system of comprehensive public coverage along with hospitals and physician services. 

Canada is the only developed country in the world with a universal health care program that does not include a universal prescription drug plan. This means that our multi-payer system has resulted in the second-highest prescription drug costs in the world, second only to the United States. Our patchwork prescription drug system is inefficient and expensive. It has left Canadians with wildly varying prescription drug coverage and access. Many people are paying different rates for the same medications.

Currently people are not benefiting from our system, but do we know who is? It is the pharmaceutical and private insurance companies, the same ones that make billions of dollars in profit every year. Did members know that in 2016 Merck Canada made a $35.2 billion profit, while Bristol-Myers Squibb earned $19.2 billion? What about the fact that in 2016 Purdue Pharma reaped profits of $31 billion? Purdue sells oxycontin and other products prescribed for the treatment of pain, and Purdue has been found to have misled doctors about the safety and effectiveness of oxycontin. As we all know too well, Canada is facing a public health crisis in which at least 2,400 Canadians died as a result of opioid overdose in 2016.

What about the top private insurance companies? Do members know that the top three companies in Canada collectively raked in net profits of over $8 billion in 2016?

Pharmaceutical companies can charge higher prices for drugs because they sell to so many buyers. Private insurance companies benefit by charging employers, unions, and employees to administer these private drug insurance plans. 

Why is it acceptable that in Canada a corporation can have profits of $35 billion, but seniors living in my riding cannot afford to both heat their homes and buy their medications?    

Seniors represent one of the fastest-growing populations in Canada today. The number of seniors in Canada is projected to reach 9.8 million in 2036, and many more seniors will be retiring in the years to come. Therefore, we need to have a social safety net in place to avoid dramatic increases in the rate of poverty. A universal pharmacare program would significantly help our seniors and would cost our health care system less.   

I want to specifically speak today about what I see in my constituency office. I have people who come into my office who are desperate for help. Many seniors, but certainly people of all ages, tell my staff that they cannot afford their medications. Couples will often split one prescription between them, or they will skip taking their medicine so that they can afford a new pair of glasses to allow them to see properly.

A woman who was on ODSP, the Ontario disability support program, came in last week. She cannot work because she has very serious mental health issues. She needs her medication to function. However, not all of her medications are covered by ODSP, and sometimes they are only partially covered. Often she must decide whether to pay her utility bills, buy groceries, or pay for her medicine. She came into my office because she chose to pay for her medication one month, but then she could not afford to cover her utility bills, so her phone was cut off.

This woman relies upon the services of our local mental health crisis phone line. The counsellors provide her with the support she needed to manage her illness, but her phone was cut off. She was devastated. She told my staff that she regularly uses her food money to cover her utilities or medication costs. That simply is not right, yet we see it in all of our constituency offices every day.   

Earlier this week, when we debated tax fairness in the House, I spoke about the true unfairness of income inequality. I will repeat some of the shocking, heartbreaking statistics that are a reality in Canada today.

According to the census data in 2015, the richest 1% now make 6.8 times more than a worker making Canada's median wage of $34,204.   

In the Windsor-Essex area, the United Way said that about one-quarter of our youth live in poverty, which means that in 2013, 19,900 children under the age of 17 lived in families that had an income of less than $17,000 per year. This is not only unacceptable; it is offensive. When someone earns so little per year, there is no room for paying for medications, and people are making very difficult decisions about their health. It is time to move forward with a universal prescription drug plan that will save money through bulk purchasing power.

In New Zealand, where a public authority negotiates on behalf of the entire country, a year's supply of the cholesterol-busting drug Lipitor costs just over $15 a year, compared to $811 per year in Canada. This is a life-saving drug, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians take it. That is why Canada needs to combine the purchasing power of all Canadians under one plan. An annual investment of $1 billion by the federal government would mean that Canadians would save $7.3 billion a year on the medications they need.

What I wish to emphasize today is that New Democrats are of the fundamental belief that people should not have to worry about whether they can pay their hydro bill or afford their medication.

Today I have some statistics from the Canadian Labour Congress, but before I do that I want to read a quote from its president in a release that was issued today. This is from CLC president Hassan Yussuff. It states:

We are pleased that the NDP under its new leader Jagmeet Singh is continuing to make pharmacare such a priority, and we hope all political parties respond by making this much needed program a reality as soon as possible.

If the Liberals claim to be standing up for labour in this country, if they claim to be standing up for working people, then I hope that they will heed the advice of the Canadian Labour Congress president today and support what the New Democrats have brought forward.

I want to read some of the statistics from the Canadian Labour Congress, which state:

About 8.4 million working Canadians don't have prescription drug coverage.

The less you earn at work, the less likely you are to have prescription drug coverage.

Women and young workers are less likely to have the coverage they need.

Even those with drug plans are paying ever-increasing co-payments and deductibles.

The New Democrats are not alone in our belief in national pharmacare. An overwhelming majority of Canadians, 91%, believe that our public health care system should include a universal prescription drug plan. It is not just the New Democrats who are calling for this desperately needed action; several national health care commissions have recommended the same, along with the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, Canadian Doctors for Medicare, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Canadian Health Coalition, the Council of Canadians, CUPE, Unifor, and the Canadian Labour Congress.

If the current government is a true friend to all of those organizations, and labour, it is time for it to stand up. We are calling for a meeting. Surely the Liberals can commit to one meeting to talk about where we are going in this country with respect to pharmacare. All we are asking in this motion is that in one year we have that meeting.

It is time for action. Canadians have waited long enough. It is time to start the conversation.