OTTAWA—Billing himself as the antidote to health cuts by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is promising to make a $6-billion “down payment” towards a national pharmacare program and improved access to family doctors and mental health services.
Speaking to reporters during a campaign stop in Hamilton Monday, Trudeau said as prime minister he would offer provinces and territories $6 billion to provide better health care in the three areas he marked as Liberal priorities.
At the same time, the Liberal leader repeatedly raised the spectre of a recalcitrant Ford blocking federal progress on improved health care. Mentioning the premier’s name upwards of a dozen times, Trudeau criticized the Ontario government for cancelling a short-lived program to cover medications for children and young adults, and suggested Canadians who want better health care should be wary of electing a federal Conservative government led by Andrew Scheer.
“In the future the federal government will have to negotiate with the provinces and territories, as has always been the case, to reach new health accords,” Trudeau said.
“When that time comes, who do you want at the negotiation table, standing up to Doug Ford: Andrew Scheer, who follows Doug Ford’s lead, or our Liberal team who will fight for you?”
Ford’s office did not address Trudeau’s criticism in a statement Monday, and said the province is “focused on continuing to grow the economy, investing in education, health care and infrastructure, and providing Ontarians and their families with the services they rely on.”
Trudeau’s promises Monday hinge on participation from the provinces and territories, which have jurisdiction over health care under the Constitution, even if they receive significant federal funding to deliver their services.
Over the past two years, the Liberals indicated a willingness to explore national pharmacare to ensure all Canadians can afford the medication they need, even as provinces collectively said they should retain the “design and delivery” of such programs in their respective jurisdictions.
The Liberals started moving toward a future pharmacare system during the final months of their mandate in government, earmarking $35 million in the 2019 federal budget to create a new Canadian Drug Agency to make a national list for medications that are covered, and use its bulk-buying power to negotiate lower prices for those drugs on behalf of existing coverage plans.
In August, the Liberal government changed the list of countries Canada uses to set drug prices, a move that Ottawa said could bring $13 billion in savings over the next decade.
On Monday, the Liberals vowed to go further in pursuit of a national pharmacare program. Trudeau did not say how this would work — only that it would be negotiated with provinces and guided by the recommendations of an advisory council appointed by his government.
That council called for a “universal, single-payer, public system” to cover prescription drugs for all Canadians, who could still have private insurance for additional coverage. The council’s final report estimated this would cost $3.5 billion to launch in 2022, rising to about $15.3 billion per year once the program is fully implemented in 2027. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated in 2017 that universal pharmacare would cost Ottawa more than $19 billion per year, while reducing overall drug spending by $4 billion per year.
Alongside pharmacare, Trudeau said Monday the Liberals would ensure “the full range of mental health services are available to every Canadian,” and that everyone can visit a family doctor or primary health-care team “on a regular basis.”
While universal access and prescription medication are the party’s objectives, the exact nature of future programs will be determined through negotiations with the provinces and territories over the next four years, Liberal spokesperson Guy Gallant later clarified for the Star.
“All of that has to be determined after we’ve sat down with the provinces and territories,” he said. “We’re committing to put $6 billion on the table, and let’s chat.”
The Liberal promises for health care follow pledges from the New Democratic Party to fund what they call an “historic expansion” of Canada’s universal medicare system. The NDP says it would spend $10 billion per year to create a single-payer, universal pharmacare system by the end of 2020 — replacing all public and private programs with a new federal coverage for all Canadians.
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The party also promises to cover dental care for all Canadians earning less than $70,000 per year, and expand the public-health system to include mental-health, vision-care and addictions services over the next decade.
The Greens have also pledged to adopt a universal pharmacare system, and negotiate an expansion of mental health and addictions services with the provinces.