Nation wide coverage for essential medications would improve access, save billions

By publicly funding essential medicines and covering the cost of nearly half of all prescriptions in Canada, $3 billion per year will be saved while removing financial barriers for Canadians.

“Universal pharmacare has been long-promised but undelivered in Canada, in part because of concerns about where to start,” said Steve Morgan, a professor in the school of population and public health. “We show that adding universal public coverage of essential medicines to the existing system of drug coverage in Canada is a significant and feasible step in the right direction.”

Steve Morgan (Photo courtesy of: UBC)

A list of 117 essential medicines were identified by researchers including, antibiotics, insulin, heart medication, anti-depressants, oral contraceptives and more. They found that the list accounted for 44 percent of all prescriptions written in 2015 and up to 77 per cent of all prescriptions when therapeutically similar medications were considered.

According to The World Health Organization (WHO) these essential medicines should be provided to everyone who needs them. Dr. Persaud, a family physician, leading the team developing the essential medicines list, said the WHO’s list has been adapted based on clinical practice in Canada.

Currently, Canadians depend on a mix of private and public coverage leaving millions facing high out-of-pocket costs for drugs.

Research shows that due to the high out-of-pocket costs which many Canadians cannot afford, many do not take medication as prescribed.

“Access to medicines can be the difference between life and death,” said Dr. Nav  Persaud. “There are treatments for HIV and heart disease that save lives but only when they are in the hands of people who need them.”

Morgan and Dr. Persaud propose governments purchase these essential medicines in bulk for all of Canada. They believe this approach will save patients and private drug plans $4.3 billion per year while costing government only an additional $1.2 billion per year. This would lead to a total net savings of $3.1 billion per year for Canadians.

“A program of this kind is a feasible way of improving the overall health of Canadians while dramatically lowering drug costs,” said Morgan. “Other countries that do similar things pay 40 to 80 per cent less for these essential medicines.”

Dr. Persaud is leading a clinical trial with patients in four Family health Teams in Ontario. Through these trials he will compare the health outcomes and health-care use of people receiving the free essential medicines and those who did not.