The medical community is welcoming the Ontario government's new pharmacare program that promises free prescription drugs to all children and young adults starting in January.
Doctors, medical researchers, and health-care advocates see pharmacare as the missing essential of medicare, and question why health systems across Canada don't provide universal drug coverage as part of universal medical coverage.
- Ontario budget 2017: Free prescription drugs for everyone under age 25
"It doesn't make any sense," said Dr. Nav Persaud, a family physician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "We have patients who come back with the same problem because they haven't been able to afford the medication that we prescribed the last time."
Persaud praised Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government for announcing its drug benefit program, even though it only covers people aged 24 and under.
"A better age limit would have been 125, because it's clear from the evidence that there are millions of people across Canada who can't afford medication," Persaud said in an interview Friday on CBC Toronto's Metro Morning. "I hope that yesterday's announcement indicates that we're along the road to providing access for everyone in Canada who needs medication."
The new pharmacare plan that the Liberals are calling OHIP+ would begin on Jan. 1, 2018, and provide free prescription drugs to some four million children and youth. Some three million seniors and about 900,000 families on social assistance already get medications through the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan, but must pay their own deductibles and per-prescription co-pay amounts.
Covering prescription drugs fully through the medicare system is one of the six "big ideas" that Dr. Danielle Martin proposes for improving the health of Canadians in her new book Better Now.
"We often see children coming into the emergency department with preventable asthma attacks because parents were spacing out their puffers until the cheque came in at the end of the month," said Martin, a family physician and vice-president of Toronto's Women's College Hospital, in an interview Friday.
Martin said the biggest benefit from the Ontario Liberal pharmacare plan will go to children in need of long-term daily medication because of chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as young adults with mental illness.
"There are real people who are going to be significantly helped by this," said Martin.
New cancer meds can cost $70,000
Those include cancer patients, who are increasingly being prescribed treatment to be taken at home, therefore not covered by OHIP the way in-hospital drugs are.
"For newer cancer medications, the average course of treatment is over $70,000," said Kelly Gorman, senior manager of public issues for the Canadian Cancer Society. "Having a program that's going to cover the cost of their drugs is just going to help families in a significant way."
On Friday, Wynne hinted she would eventually like to expand the drug program beyond young adults and children, but made no commitments.
"Do I believe there should be universal pharmacare for all ages in Ontario? Yes, I think that's an absolutely important goal," Wynne said at a news conference. "Do I have a timeline for when that will happen? No I don't."
Ontario's next election is scheduled for June 7, 2018.