Ottawa (27 May 2021) — A universal public pharmacare program will help to ensure all Canadians are able to get the prescription drugs they need and will save the health care system money. So why is it taking so long to introduce?
The answer is that, while the overwhelming majority of Canadians would benefit from universal public pharmacare, some large corporations would see profits drop. Those corporations, whose owners include some of the wealthiest families in the world, are lobbying hard against universal public pharmacare.
Implementing a universal public pharmacare program means putting the needs of Canadians ahead of corporate profits, and for some politicians that’s difficult.
Corporations fighting universal pharmacare
Among the organizations opposing universal public pharmacare are business associations representing large corporations that own pharmacies, insurance companies, and insurance agents.
The large corporations owning pharmacies are part of the (ironically named) Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada. While neighbourhood conjures up images of small family-owned pharmacies, the families controlling these pharmacies are billionaires like the Waltons who own Walmart, the Westons who own Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart, Daryl Katz who owns Rexall and Sobeys.
Other organizations involved are the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association and the Conference for Advanced Life Underwriting (CALU). Members of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association include the largest insurance companies in Canada and insurance companies owned by the 5 largest Canadian banks. The involvement of CALU mirrors what has happened on issues like privatization, where professional associations are lobbying for government policies that benefit large corporations in their sectors.
Many corporations in the pharmaceutical industry also oppose universal public pharmacare.
Reason corporations oppose universal pharmacare is because it works
Universal public pharmacare means people get access to the medication they need, and costs go down. And it’s the fact that costs go down that many wealthy corporations object to.
Canadians pay more for prescription drugs than people in most countries that have universal pharmacare programs. That’s because a universal public pharmacare has bargaining power when negotiating with drug manufacturers and pharmacies. One public plan will also have lower administrative costs than the multitude of different plans that exist today in Canada.
But the extra costs that Canadians pay for prescription drugs are going into the pockets of drug companies, the corporations that own pharmacies, and insurance companies. So, to protect their profits, they’re opposing attempts to bring in a universal public pharmacare program.
Instead, they are proposing that private plans continue to operate and that public plans only cover people without private insurance. In practice, this would mean that private insurers would provide coverage for people who are working and are generally healthier, while governments would spend more providing drug coverage for people facing higher costs. One researcher who has looked at what is being proposed as an alternative to universal public pharmacare described it as “institutionalized corporate welfare.”
Debate on universal public pharmacare and income inequality
The question at the root of the debate over whether to adopt universal public pharmacare is whether the federal government is willing to take meaningful action to reduce income inequality instead of just mouthing platitudes.
For Canadians with modest incomes, universal public pharmacare is urgently needed. 1 in 10 Canadians have reported not filling a prescription due to cost. Others have given up food and heat to pay for prescriptions.
It’s also true that a universal public pharmacare program will mean lower profits for companies owned by a small number of billionaires. However, for a government concerned about income inequality, ensuring people no longer have to choose between food and medication should be more important than making billionaires richer.