A group of Canadians charged with examining access to prescription drugs across the country is recommending that the federal government adopt a national, publicly funded pharmacare plan in concert with the country's universal health-care system.
Representatives of the Citizens' Reference Panel on Pharmacare in Canada will deliver their recommendations Tuesday to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health.
The panel, comprised of 35 people from every province and territory chosen in a randomized "civic lottery," recommends immediate action to address the current patchwork of public and private drug plans that leaves about 20 per cent of Canadians with little or no coverage for prescription medications.
"The panellists were surprised to learn that many Canadians do not have adequate drug coverage and that Canadians on average spend considerably more for medically necessary drugs than most other countries with comparable health-care systems," panel chairman Peter MacLeod said in a statement.
"They believe the government should act and create a national pharmacare system that is equitable and cost-effective."
In its report, the panel says there should be a new national formulary of medicines which would cover the full range of individual patient treatment needs, including those for rare diseases.
As a first step, members are calling on Ottawa to immediately implement public coverage for a short list of frequently prescribed drugs — such as those for treating high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and asthma — before moving to a more comprehensive formulary.
"They've recommended that a long-term vision be that Canada have a medicare-like version of pharmacare, but in the short term that Canada move quickly on a few things, one of which (is) access to essential medicines commonly used to maintain health and keep people out of hospital," said Steve Morgan, a professor at UBC's School of Population and Public Health and the panel's lead researcher.
Canada stands alone as the only developed nation in the world with a universal health-care system that does not also provide nationally funded coverage of prescription drugs, said Morgan, pointing to Australia, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and the western European countries for comparison.
While the citizens' panel said the government could fund the program through modest income- and corporate-tax increases, Morgan said there are huge savings to be realized by implementing a national drug-coverage plan that could help offset the cost of such a program.
Research suggests that a national pharmacare strategy would save the country between $4 billion and $10 billion a year because Ottawa as a single payer could wield far greater influence when negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies than could a single province or territory.
Canadians now spend almost $30 billion a year on prescription medicines.
"This will actually not cost Canadians a whole lot more than we already pay," Morgan said Monday from Vancouver. "And that's because the current system that we have is one that fragments Canadian purchasing power and results in some of the highest drug prices in the world, second only to the United States."
Panel member Kate Glover of Englehart, Ont., southeast of Timmins, said she was dismayed to learn that Canada proportionately pays significantly more for drugs than many other countries.
"That discrepancy just does not make sense to me," said Glover, a professor at Northern College. "How come we as Canadians — we are a huge country with a large population — how can we not garner a better advantage with regards to buying power?
"It seems like a no-brainer."
Members of the panel were randomly selected from about 1,000 people who had volunteered to take part in the process to advise policy makers on drug coverage for Canadians. Those chosen broadly represented the country's citizenry — including French- and English-speaking men and women within different age groups, with a variety of ethnicities.
During a five-day meeting in Ottawa, the panellists listened to presentations from speakers that included health practitioners, pharmacists, drug makers, insurers and academics. The group then set priorities for an overhaul of the currently splintered system and drafted a report containing their recommendations.
It was an opportunity Glover said she couldn't pass up.
"I wanted to be part of something important that not only affected myself and my community, but my country," she said. "And whatever comes of our report could have a lifelong effect on the health of not just my generation but my children's generation and generations to come."