The prohibitive cost of prescription drugs contributes to the premature death of about 1,000 working-age Canadians  each year from ischemic heart disease and diabetes alone.

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A silent health crisis is looming as more and more people struggle to pay for their prescription drugs.

Even before the pandemic, the statistics were staggering.

About 7.5 million citizens — one in five Canadians — either did not have prescription drug insurance or had inadequate insurance to cover their medication needs. One in four Canadian households were having difficulty finding money to buy their medicines. One million Canadians cut spending on food and heat to afford them.

And as with much in our lives during COVID-19, things have only gotten worse.

The pandemic has complicated the ability of people to manage new diagnoses and existing chronic conditions, and to access medical treatment generally. In other words, even as the pandemic grinds on, people continue to struggle with non-COVID health challenges, which can be amplified by uneven and uncertain access to necessary drugs. Without their needed medication, people’s pre-existing health issues can worsen and leave them more vulnerable to worse outcomes if they contract COVID-19.


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The pandemic has also led to significant job losses, which means many workers have lost their benefits.

Over one million people were unemployed or had reduced hours of work in December 2020 compared to February of the previous year. Canadians are twice as likely to have lost prescription drug coverage as to have gained it over the past year. As with many social inequities, these outcomes are disproportionately impacting racialized households, women, and workers with lower incomes.

These numbers aren’t abstract. They represent people with real, day-to-day fears about how they will be able to take care of their health, on top of worrying about the risk of contracting COVID-19.

They are people like Heather Evans, a working mother from Calgary who has struggled with heart disease for the past two decades. She had her first heart attack at age 39, and has lost five siblings to the illness. Evans’ medications have cost her up to $1,000 per month, and she is currently taking medication which would cost her $46,000 per year. Thankfully, she is covered by her employee benefits, but she wasn’t always. In the past, while raising her son, she had to rely on free samples from her local clinic while skimping on basic necessities for her family in order to take her life-saving medicines.

Her story is far too common and represents a major flaw and liability in Canada’s health-care system. “Pharmacare is the unfinished business of health care,” noted the authors of a 2019 report by a federal government-appointed Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare.


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In last fall’s speech from the throne, the federal government committed to working “with provinces and territories willing to move forward without delay.” We are urging immediate action because we cannot afford to wait any longer for this crucial, missing piece in our health care system.

As leaders representing labour, people living with heart disease and stroke, and nurses, we believe it’s time for provincial, territorial and federal governments to work together to implement a national, universal, single-payer pharmacare plan.

Not only does a national pharmacare plan make sense from a health and equity perspective, but it makes economic sense as well. Canada’s patchwork of more than 100 public and 100,000 private drug plans is one of the most expensive in the world. Universal pharmacare would reduce total spending on prescription drugs in Canada by $5 billion annually.

There is no time to waste. The prohibitive cost of prescription drugs contributes to the premature death of about 1,000 working-age Canadians each year from ischemic heart disease and diabetes alone. The Parliamentary Budget Officer’s 2017 report reported an even more alarming number — that if costs of prescription drugs were kept down, over 60 million more prescriptions currently going unfilled would be filled.

We have a problem and it is one we know how to solve. All that is needed is the political will to get this done.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress; Doug Roth is the CEO of Heart and Stroke; and Linda Silas is the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.


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