Too many people are struggling to pay for their medications

February 19, 2021

By Hassan Yussuff, Doug Roth, Linda Silas, as published in Toronto Star

 

A silent health crisis is looming as 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. 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.

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

Over one million people have been unemployed or had reduced hours of work. Canadians are twice as likely to have lost prescription drug coverage as to have gained it over the past year. These outcomes are disproportionately impacting racialized households, women, and workers with lower incomes.

These numbers represent people with real, day-to-day fears about how they will be able to take care of their health.

They are people like Heather Evans, a working mother from Calgary who has struggled with heart disease. Evans’ medications have cost her up to $1,000 per month, and currently, she is 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.

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.

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.

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 believe it’s time for provincial, territorial and federal governments to work together to implement a national, universal, single-payer pharmacare plan.

We are urging immediate action because we cannot afford to wait any longer for this crucial, missing piece in our health care system.

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

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