Low-income Canadians struggling to pay for medications plead for pharmacare

TORONTO — Three of the major federal parties have promised they’ll introduce universal pharmacare if elected. While the details and costs of their plans differ, coverage of drug prescriptions would help the almost one million low-income Canadians who are struggling to pay for prescription medication, with some going without food and heat to pay for drugs, according to a recent study. 

Vulnerable Canadians, including contract workers and people without private health insurance, are struggling to pay for meds for common conditions like diabetes, asthma, cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Around 20 per cent of Canadians have inadequate drug coverage or no coverage at all, and must pay out of pocket.

Another study found that one in five households reported a family member who, in the past year, had not taken a prescribed medicine due to its cost.

The Liberals have said they will implement a program to ensure “prescription drugs are more affordable and more accessible to more Canadians,” according to their website. The NDP have said their plan will make sure every Canadian can fill their prescription and will save families more than $500 a year.

The Green Party said they would support the expansion of the Canada Health Act to include prescription drugs dispensed at pharmacies.

Canadians struggle to pay for prescription drugs

Contract worker Natalie Brown, 33 and from Nova Scotia, is one of those struggling to afford her drugs. Chronically ill with a variety of health problems including severe asthma and diabetes, she has no private health insurance or union protection.

Now on disability, her government plan covers some medications but won’t pay for seven others that she’s been prescribed, leaving her with a medical bill for between $200 and $700 a month.

Sometimes she’s forced to choose between staying warm or staying on her meds.

“I will have months where utilities are almost cut off, because I had to pay for my medications,” she said.

“I feel devastated. I worked for the government in the wellness department…and I had the head of the department say ‘you don’t look sick.’”

Brown is among those patients hoping for the introduction of a national pharmacare scheme, a federal system that will cover all essential medications.  

“It would make more sense to have a national program to protect all Canadians equally,” she said.

Patient advocate Bill Swan from Hubley, Nova Scotia, has created the “Faces of Pharmacare” website to highlight the plight of those like Brown.

Swan, who has suffered asthma since childhood and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with about 60 per cent lung function, has also struggled to afford his medications, often ending up in the emergency room.

He is now on a private plan through a professional association, but still pays over $3,000 for his medication.

“It should have been done 50 years ago, so the next best time is now,” he told CTV News.

“There is a massive untold story. There are so many affected by this and don’t get their story out.”

“During the election we are seeing the talk is just talk, and that is what I am doing with my website… we need to get beyond the positioning…and look at why this is good for all Canadians.”

Studies also show that for people with diabetes, heart disease and chronic respiratory problems alone, universal pharmacare would result in 220,000 fewer emergency room visits and 90,000 fewer hospital stays every year.

One-third of working Canadians don’t have drug benefits provided by their employer and most work-based plans don’t cover the full cost of medicine.

University of British Columbia researcher Steve Morgan, who studied pharmacare, is unsure of the prospects for pharmacare post-federal election.

“Canadian voters need to realize that this is a nearly once in a life time opportunity to improve the quality and comprehensiveness of the Canadian health care system,” he said.

“It’s tempting to say we are going to get a national pharmacare system…it depends on voters, but not just parties….but to ask candidates, ask their parties, are you committed.

“Studies are showing that people who don’t take their medications, often end up sicker and in hospital… far more expensive than the prevention they are prescribed.”

With files from CTVNews.ca writer Mariam Matti

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