TORONTO — Ontario's Liberal government hopes a youth drug coverage plan revealed in its budget this week will help spur a national program by showing Ottawa and other provinces that pharmacare is affordable.
The provincial plan to cover more than 4,400 prescription medications for Ontarians under 25, with no co-pay or deductible, at an annual cost of $465 million was the centrepiece of Ontario's balanced budget released Thursday.
Premier Kathleen Wynne is calling the plan, set to start in January, a step toward truly universal coverage.
"Do I believe that there should be universal pharmacare for all ages in Ontario? Yes," she said Friday. "That it will happen much more quickly if we have a federal government that is working on a national pharmacare plan."
Wynne said she is certain that other premiers will have questions for her at their next meeting this summer.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said this approach on pharmacare is similar to Ontario's push for pension reform, which saw the province use its own proposed pension plan to successfully push for a national Canada Pension Plan enhancement.
"If you think back to Tommy Douglas and the beginning of medicare it was one province that stepped forward and the rest of the provinces and the federal government followed," he said.
Covering people under 25 — following the United Nations' definition of youth — is a good place to start, Hoskins said.
"You don't have to go from zero to 100 per cent coverage for everybody on day one," he said.
Some of the provincial health ministers across the country are hesitant on pharmacare because of the price tag, Hoskins noted.
"I haven't met a health minister who doesn't believe that it's the right thing to do, but if there's any reluctance that's been expressed to me, it's been because of concerns about what the up-front financial implications might be," he said.
"We're going to show that there are cost savings through bulk purchasing, through keeping people healthier."
Hoskins also said Ontario will work with insurance companies to ensure the savings they see from no longer having to cover medications for young employees and employees' children get passed onto employers and workers.
Steve Morgan, the lead researcher for the Citizens' Reference Panel on Pharmacare in Canada, said Ontario's cost estimate for its program sounds about right. The financial cost of covering medications for a group of people that don't traditionally use prescription drugs as much as other age groups would be relatively low, he said.
Beyond that, the Ontario plan's "incremental change" has symbolic value, said Morgan, a professor at the University of British Columbia.
"They're signalling to Justin Trudeau to say, 'Our vision for universal pharmacare is consistent with Canadian medicare. We're going to do it for kids and we're going to call on you to do the right thing and create national standards,'" he said.
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.
After meeting last year with provincial and territorial health ministers, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said addressing the cost of pharmaceuticals is one of her government's priorities. The ministers and Ottawa have formed a working group on access to medication.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press