Mr. Speaker, breast cancer is one of the most common illnesses among Canadian women. In 2011, an estimated 23,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and more than 5,000 women will die of it. On average, 64 Canadian women a day learn that they have breast cancer.
A breast cancer diagnosis forever alters the lives of these women. First, there is the fear and anxiety that accompanies the tests, and then chemotherapy becomes a part of their everyday lives. They must miss work and find someone to help take care of their children. Sometimes, a diagnosis can mean surgery and the loss of a breast, along with all of the pain associated with that harsh reality. There is also the exorbitant cost of medications and the red tape of insurance companies. And then there are the women who have no insurance at all and must make sacrifices to get the essential medications they need to fight this illness.
Women need support for the duration of this process. I would like to acknowledge the initiative of the member for Barrie. It is remarkable that a man, who will probably never suffer from this disease, wants to get involved. However, this bill is incomplete. It is but a modest band-aid solution to a serious and complex disease. This bill would encourage the use of existing initiatives. In my opinion, we must do more. Although breast density may be a significant risk factor, it is nevertheless just one factor to be taken into consideration.
First, what is breast density? The member opposite explained it very well. Dense breasts have more connective tissue, glands and ducts. When a woman has a mammogram, the dense tissue appears white, the same colour as cancerous lumps, which can result in a false diagnosis. Other, more precise tests are then recommended. Better results are obtained for these women with magnetic resonance imaging, for example.
However, we must be cautious. Breast density only affects a small number of women. Focusing only on this aspect of the disease will not help improve cancer screening throughout Canada. This bill abandons all other women, the majority, who need better screening and health care measures. I would like to explain what would really make a difference in the fight against breast cancer.
First, the reality is that many women will not discover in time that they have breast cancer, simply because they do not have access to a family doctor, who is often the first contact in the health system. The family doctor knows the patient's history, weight and general health, and asks questions about the patient's lifestyle, nutrition, and so forth. The family doctor does the annual exam and may detect symptoms of the disease or an unusual lump in the breast. He or she may refer the patient to a specialist for tests and further investigation.
More than 5 million Canadians still do not have a family doctor. For years, the people of this country have been calling on governments to address the shortage of doctors. What is the federal government doing? Nothing. My colleagues and I have proposed numerous measures to fix this important issue. One significant way to help would be to work with the provinces to increase the number of spaces in universities in order to train an additional 1,200 doctors. Multidisciplinary teams should also be established to improve screening and patient care.
For example, at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, general practitioners, oncologists, nurses and radiologists work together to treat patients. Early detection has increased because there is constant communication between the various health professionals. In addition, treatment includes psychological services as well as support for relatives.
Second, breast cancer screening is not routine in Canada. Programs are sometimes inadequate or completely non-existent, as is sadly the case in Nunavut. However, specialists are telling us that the earlier the diagnosis, the higher the woman's chances of survival. Studies have shown that women are at a higher risk of developing the disease after the age of 40. The Province of Quebec implemented a routine screening program a few years ago. The program targets women between the ages of 50 and 69, and involves getting a mammogram. Every two years, women are contacted by the department and are encouraged to get tested. The program is fully covered by the Régie de l'assurance-maladie du Québec. According to statistics from Quebec's Department of Health and Social Services, breast cancer mortality rates in participating women dropped by at least 25% between 1996 and 2006.
The federal government should take the lead on this and work with the provinces and territories to ensure stable funding for routine screening programs for women 40 and over. In doing so, lives would be saved.
Thirdly, another major problem is access to diagnostic tests within a reasonable timeframe. New investments in imaging equipment have increased the number of scanners available, but have not necessarily led to shorter wait times, or so says the Health Council of Canada in its May 2011 report. Between 2008 and 2010, wait times for these scans decreased in Alberta and Prince Edward Island and increased in Ontario. Governments continue to face challenges in collecting data on wait times for diagnostic imaging, in part because many scans are done outside hospitals in free-standing clinics.
There is also the question of public coverage for diagnostic testing. Some provinces cover diagnostic tests and others do not. Some provinces provide coverage at hospitals only. In Quebec, for example, tests are covered only if they are done in a hospital. Nonetheless, patients can pay out of pocket to get tested at free-standing clinics. These private-sector tests are done by radiologists who also work in public-sector hospitals, which increases the wait times and creates two classes of people: those who have the means to pay for diagnostic tests and those who do not, the less fortunate. A number of doctors in Quebec, including the MQRP —also known as Canadian Doctors for Medicare—condemn this double standard.
A federal fund for improving public coverage of diagnostic tests, included in the next health report, is certainly one solution to consider. Establishing Canada-wide standards to improve breast cancer screening for certain women, namely women with dense breast tissue, is a concrete measure that would truly help these women. Is the government prepared to commit to such solutions? I hope so.
This government has been very lax when it comes to protecting and funding the public system. Under the pretext that health falls under provincial jurisdiction, the Conservatives clearly seem to think that the best thing to do is nothing at all. However, the federal government is responsible for working with the provinces to improve the health of all Canadians. Do the members opposite need to be reminded that one of the principles of the Canada Health Act is universality. People consider equal access to health care to be a right of citizenship, not a privilege for only the most fortunate.
Fourth, the cost of medication is a serious obstacle to cancer treatment. What is the point of improving breast cancer information and screening if women cannot afford to buy the medication they need to be cured? While the health care system provides cancer-treating drugs in hospitals, half the new treatments are taken at home and patients are therefore responsible for paying for them. A lack of insurance means enormous costs for patients and their families given that the average cost of treatment for new cancer-fighting drugs is exorbitant at $65,000. Some people do not have insurance since they do not have the money to pay for a private policy.
Under the current health accord, which was signed in 2004, the federal and provincial governments agreed to create options for catastrophic pharmaceutical coverage. Since then, nothing has been done. What is the federal government waiting for to resolve this issue? Does the government have no idea how to reduce the cost of medication?
I have a few ideas. First, make better use our negotiating power when purchasing pharmaceuticals, specifically by joining with all the provinces and territories to buy in bulk. After all, there is strength in numbers. Second, reduce the administrative costs by making use of the public system. A Canada-wide catastrophic drug program would be less costly to administer than several small programs in the private sector. Third, eliminate rebates for pharmaceutical companies and pharmacists and provide funding for research based on the actual needs of the public rather than on profits for pharmaceutical companies.
Finally, breast cancer prevention could be greatly improved. This disease has many risk factors: personal and family history, obesity, and the use of alcohol and tobacco can increase the risk of breast cancer.
I hope that all these good ideas will help the members of the House to understand what a terrible illness breast cancer is. Although this bill has good intentions, it does not do enough. Nevertheless, we hope that the members opposite will propose a better and stronger Canada-wide strategy that will help all women suffering from breast cancer rather than just a few of them.