Top reasons we need universal pharmacare

Fewer emergency room visits, cost savings for employers, and health equity are just some of the reasons we should go all in on drug coverage for Canadians

5 March 2024

A pharmacist consulting with a patient

The bill creating a framework for a national single-payer pharmacare program for Canada was introduced in Parliament last week. Bill C-64 or the Pharmacare Act is the first phase of a national program for prescription drug coverage. The first phase will cover a number of contraception and diabetes medications.

Here are the top things to know about the need for universal pharmacare in our province.

Pharmacare is good for business

For small businesses, many of which cannot afford drug benefits for their employees, pharmacare could make it easier to recruit and retain employees and maintain a healthy workforce. Research from the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto explains that the average business owner who provides drug coverage could save over $750 annually per employee. In fact, the Calgary and Edmonton Chambers of Commerce released a joint statement last week asking the province to explore pharmacare to retain Alberta’s competitiveness for job creators and the labour force.

Alberta’s provincial plans have gaps

Prescription drug coverage varies depending on your province and from person to person. In Alberta, three programs cover prescription drugs for people living on low incomes and seniors. If a family of four has an income over $36,634 (note: the poverty line in Calgary is $55,771 for a family of four), they don’t qualify for the low-income programs. That’s where the Non-Group Coverage program administered by Alberta Blue Cross kicks in. The monthly premium for a family is $118 per month and you pay 30% of the cost of the prescription to a maximum of $25. There is also a subsidized option if you meet certain criteria and have an income under $39,250. Then your monthly premium is $82.60, but you still need to pay up to $25 per prescription.

Despite all these programs, 17% of Albertans don’t have coverage. A couple of hundred dollars for a premium and a 30% co-pay may seem reasonable to many, but for a family at the poverty line of $55,771 that could mean making trade-offs on other basic necessities.

17% of adults in Alberta reported not having any prescription insurance to cover medication costs.

Statistics Canada: Inequities in pharmaceutical access and use

Reducing healthcare costs

When you don’t have coverage, you’re more likely to not adhere to a prescription. One-quarter of Canadians reported splitting pills, skipping doses, or deciding not to fill or renew a prescription due to cost according to this Leger poll.

A Prescription for Canada: Achieving Pharmacare for All says removing patient costs for the medications used to treat diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic respiratory conditions would result in up to 220,000 fewer emergency room visits, and 90,000 fewer hospital stays annually–about $1.2 billion in healthcare savings annually.

The first phase of the proposed pharmacare program would provide free contraception. This would reduce the number of unintended pregnancies in Alberta, which cost the healthcare system an estimated $40 million per year according to Project EmpowHER. They cite research on their website that says $1 invested in universal contraception results in up to $9 total cost savings across the public sector.

Purchasing efficiencies and scale benefits

Did you know Canada spends more on medication than all but three OECD member countries? Coordinating our purchasing could make a real difference according to this 2019 Health Canada report. “[Universal Pharmacare] will reduce the inefficiencies of the tens of thousands of private plans, which cost three times more to run than public plans. It will replace multiple buyers with a single purchaser, one that has the clout and authority to negotiate the best, lowest prices for prescription medications.” The report estimates the annual savings from pharmacare efficiencies would be about $5 billion per year.

Canadians support universal pharmacare

Universal pharmacare is pretty popular. 82% of Canadians agree the federal government has a responsibility to ensure there is prescription drug coverage for all people living in Canada and 83% support universal coverage of contraceptives.

While we know it won’t be easy and it could take many years to fully implement, universal pharmacare will make a huge difference to the health and lives of our community. We call on the Alberta government to do what’s right for people with inadequate medication coverage, small businesses, and taxpayers by working with the federal government on this important policy measure.

Stacked coins increasing with chalk drawn icons in the background for housing, savings, education and groceries.

Every month it’s the same story. Rents are up. Food costs are still high. We’re bracing for record-breaking utility costs this winter. We’re all feeling the pinch of affordability these days, but when your income is $15, $16, or even $20 per hour it means making trade-offs on basic necessities. Right now in Calgary, the living wage is almost $9 an hour more than our current minimum wage.