Jagmeet Singh threatens consequences if Liberals miss March 1 pharmacare deadline

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (right) says he has warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) that his government is running out of time to introduce pharmacare legislation. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (right) says he has warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) that his government is running out of time to introduce pharmacare legislation. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday he warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a recent closed-door meeting that there will be "repercussions" if the government misses the March 1 deadline for tabling pharmacare legislation.

Singh meets with Trudeau occasionally to discuss the terms of the supply and confidence agreement between their two parties, which sees New Democrats support the government on key votes in the House of Commons in exchange for movement on policy priorities. Singh described the Monday meeting as "tough."

"I made it clear to the PM that we expect legislation, and we expect the government to take steps to go beyond that, and we expect that by the first of March," Singh told reporters on Parliament Hill.

"I put him on notice ... If not, there will be repercussions."

According to the terms of the 2022 NDP-Liberal agreement, the party is expecting legislation outlining the principles of pharmacare and a plan to start covering some drugs by 2025.

In November, the government admitted it would not meet the deal's original timeline, which called for passage of pharmacare legislation before 2024. New Democrats said that missing the deadline would cost the Liberals.

"We said that since they missed their deadline, we expect more, and we will let you know in the coming days what that more is," Singh said Wednesday.

WATCH | Jagmeet Singh describes meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

A senior NDP source who is not authorized to speak publicly told CBC in January that the NDP has asked the Liberals to fast-track coverage of some several life-saving drugs for conditions like diabetes as it works on pharmacare legislation.

The source said the Liberals agreed to cover fewer than five drugs. Health Minister Mark Holland's office would not confirm that report.

The NDP source said the coverage is expected to begin sooner rather than later but could not say precisely when.

On Wednesday, Singh accused the Liberals of seeking a plan that pleases the pharmaceutical industry and "big insurance."

While the agreement between the Liberals and NDP does not define pharmacare, New Democrats have insisted on a universal system that is publicly delivered and administered, with the federal government as the single payer.

The insurance industry has warned against adopting the NDP's preferred model, saying it would disrupt workplace health insurance plans. New Democrats have not called for an end to workplace insurance programs.

Holland did not immediately respond to Singh's comments. He has said in the past that the government is operating in a "restrained fiscal environment" and the "ambition has to be tempered."

NDP health critic Don Davies said negotiations with the government have been productive.

"I think we're quite close, actually, on coming to legislation that meets both of our needs," Davies said.

Davies said he will be meeting with Holland as early as Friday or next week.

In 2019, a federal advisory council led by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins urged Canada to implement universal, single-payer public pharmacare.

Its report estimated such a program would cost the federal government $3.5 billion annually if it started by covering essential medicines. The same report found that insuring a more comprehensive list of drugs would cost $15.3 billion annually, but Canada would save $5 billion on prescription drug spending.

Tabling pharmacare legislation would not necessarily require spending billions of dollars up front. The NDP is calling for an incremental approach that would phase in national drug coverage.

That's basically the way medicare was rolled out across the country. In 1957, Ottawa first offered to cover hospital visits, following in the footsteps of the Saskatchewan government. Canadians still needed to pay for physician visits.

The Lester Pearson government introduced the Medical Care Act in 1966, offering to share the costs of physician services. It wasn't until 1972 that all provinces and territories had universal public insurance for physician services.

Decades later, though, Canada is the only developed nation in the world with a publicly funded universal system that does not include prescription drugs.