Madam Speaker, I am happy and proud, as a New Democrat, to speak today to our motion on the need and the great opportunity for a national pharmacare program that would provide free access to prescription drugs for every Canadian. Just as I am proud to stand for that belief, Canadians are proud of their health care system. It defines us as Canadians. We do not think health care should only be available to those who can afford it.
When Tommy Douglas brought the concept of universal health care to Canada, it was always intended to include the cost of necessary medicines. Unfortunately, this was not implemented when universal health care came into effect in Canada. Now Canada is the only country in the world with a universal health care plan that does not include the cost of drugs in its coverage. How can we consider our system to be universal if it excludes the very drugs that bring us back to health and indeed save our lives?
We have the nonsensical situation where I can go to my doctor to get my cut foot stitched up at no cost, but then I have to pay for the antibiotics necessary in that situation. If I cannot afford to pay for that prescription, I may well end up at the emergency room, needing the free medications I can get in the hospital. It does not make any sense.
That added pressure on our health care system adds costs to all levels of government. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated that about 6% of hospital admissions were the result of people not filling their prescriptions, not taking their medicine. That results in an annual cost as high as $1.63 billion across the country, to say nothing of the loss of quality of life for those people who try to get by without proper medication and end up housebound or bedridden because of that inaction. This is a clear case of how unfair our present system is. Why should people with the financial means to buy their medications be afforded better health care than those who cannot afford them?
In the debate today, I have heard several members ask where we will get the $20 billion to fund pharmacare in Canada and who will pay for those medications. We will all pay, just as we do now. The good news is that if we had universal pharmacare plan, we would be paying at least $4 billion less than we do now, according to the report produced by the parliamentary budget officer last week. That is a highly conservative estimate. The savings could be as much as $11.5 billion, as reported by other very credible studies. We could have a universal pharmacare plan in Canada where everybody is covered, everybody gets free medications, and we end up paying billions and billions of dollars less every year.
Getting back to the question of who pays for our present system, the answer is individuals, businesses, and government. The Conservatives are always talking about the effects of payroll taxes on small businesses across the country. Extended health benefits that include prescription payments are one of those payroll taxes, one of the most expensive ones, and the costs are rising steadily for Canadian businesses because of that.
It is perhaps just a little hypocritical of members here to denounce a national pharmacare plan when their own medications are already paid for by the people of Canada. Like many Canadians with good jobs, we in the House of Commons have most of our drug costs covered by private insurance paid for by our employer. I was covered by a similar plan under my previous employer before I was elected, but millions of Canadians lack that coverage.
Also like many Canadians, I take cholesterol-reducing medication to reduce the chance that I will have a serious heart attack or stroke. If I had to pay for that medicine myself, it would cost me well over $100 a year. If I were still self-employed, I would probably choose not to take that drug, putting myself at risk, risking higher costs for our health care system. One of the interesting facts about the medication I take is that Canadians pay an extraordinarily high price for it. Elsewhere in the world, in countries that have universal pharmacare and the strength of negotiating fair prices with pharmaceutical companies, that drug is much cheaper.
People in New Zealand only pay one-tenth the amount we pay in Canada for that cholesterol-reducing drug. This is true across the board for most medicines we use in Canada. We pay more for drugs in Canada than almost every country of the world. That could be fixed through a national pharmacare system, with central purchasing for a powerful negotiating position with drug companies.
Today we have heard many examples of Canadians who cannot afford to pay for their medicines, the negative effect that has them, and the costs incurred by the health care system across the country.
I will mention just one more example. One of my constituents is a veteran. He uses medical cannabis to treat his severe PTSD. Veterans Affairs has covered the cost of that prescription, which has allowed him to have a relatively normal life for the past few years. This coverage has helped hundreds of other vets across the country, keeping them off dangerous opioids and away from the destructive use of alcohol.
Recently Veterans Affairs cut back on that coverage. This has forced my constituent, and many like him, to endure the painful effects of PTSD once again. Some repeatedly end up in the emergency rooms of hospitals. The costs of those visits, especially when compared to the small savings from the cutbacks in coverage, are astronomical.
The report of the parliamentary budget officer is clear. Our present system that separates the cost of prescription medicines from other health costs does not make any sense. It does not make sense from the perspective of keeping Canadians healthy and it does not make sense in terms of how much money we spend on our health care. Universal pharmacare is sound, economic policy.
If members do not believe the PBO, they can listen to what the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada says:
It's time for Canada to fill a gap in our health care system and truly provide universal health care for all. The Heart and Stroke Foundation believes in the values of universality, equity, and equality in our health care system. All people living in Canada should have equitable and timely access to necessary prescription medications based on the best possible health outcomes rather than their ability to pay.
The Canadian Diabetes Association believes that “universal access to necessary drugs is critical to the health of all Canadians and a sustainable health-care system in Canada.”
Universal pharmacare will save Canadians billions of dollars. Everyone in the House should be happy to hear that. It will save individual Canadians money, and it will mean significant savings for business owners across the country. It will also relieve pressure on our health care system, saving billions of dollars there as well. It would keep us all healthier.
The motion simply asks the government to begin talks with the provinces about how a universal pharmacare program could be structured in Canada. It gives the government a whole year to organize those talks.
Now the government side has said that the time is not right for this. Well, we have all heard the saying that the best time to plant a tree was 50 years ago and that the second-best time is today. We should have included pharmacare in our health care system 50 years ago, but we have the opportunity to make that bold step today.