Federal government must expand pharmacare to include essential medicines

The federal government’s new pharmacare legislation is a historic step forward on the path to national, universal drug coverage. Through important collaboration between the NDP and the federal government, we’ve finally received a legislative framework intended to give everyone in Canada with a health card access to prescription drugs for diabetes and contraception.

Additionally, the infusion of $1.5 billion over five years in the recent federal budget is a welcome first step in terms of funding.


But it is not time to celebrate yet.

Not only must the legislative framework win the support of Parliament and the provinces and territories, but the federal government must also act quickly to close the gaps in the framework that leave out essential medicines to treat our deadliest diseases: cancer, heart conditions and stroke.

Millions of people in Canada live with cancer and heart disease and rely on prescription medicines to help keep them alive. Many cannot afford them.

A 2024 Leger poll commissioned by the Canadian Cancer Society and Heart & Stroke revealed that one in four people in Canada either do not have prescription drug insurance or do not have enough insurance to cover their prescription medicines, leading many to skip doses or split pills, or decide not to renew or fill their prescriptions due to cost.

This is not acceptable. We live in the only country in the world with a medicare system that does not include prescription medications. Without a national program to help reduce the cost of prescription medications, too many Canadians end up taking on this financial burden on their own. These costs are getting harder to manage as the cost of living crisis continues across the country.

This policy gap places a heavier burden on those struggling with complex diseases like cancer and heart disease – people like Robin McGee and Heather Evans.

Ms. McGee, from Nova Scotia, has late-stage colorectal cancer. While seeking treatment, she learned there were promising drugs that could help prolong her life. But the province’s public health plan did not cover them. Neither did her private insurance.

To access the treatment she needed in Canada, Ms. McGee had to pay thousands of dollars out of her own pocket. She ended up buying the prescription medicine from a pharmacy in Bangladesh where it was more affordable, but still costly.

Ms. Evans, from Alberta, lives with heart disease and other health conditions. At times, her life-saving prescription medicines cost her up to $1,000 a month. She is currently taking a medication that would cost $46,000 a year if she had to pay for it out of pocket.

Fortunately, Ms. Evans has a job with health insurance coverage. But she wasn’t always so lucky. Before she had coverage, she was forced to skimp on groceries for her family to afford her medication and had to rely on free drug samples from her local medical clinic.

Ms. McGee’s and Ms. Evans’s stories are not unique. The Leger poll showed that more than one-quarter of respondents have had to cut back on groceries, delay rent, mortgage or utility bills, or incur debt to pay for their prescription medicines.

A cancer or heart disease diagnosis is daunting enough without also having to face financial hardships to pay for necessary medications.

Beyond affordability for patients, an expanded pharmacare framework that includes prescriptions for cancer and heart disease can also reduce pressure on and save costs to the healthcare system.

When we polled people about their prescriptions, one in 10 said they have gone to a hospital because they could not afford prescription drugs for their chronic condition. Universal coverage of essential drugs can prevent these unexpected and costly visits, saving the healthcare system an average of $1,488 per patient per year.

Time is of the essence, and we have four critical asks.

Our first is that Parliament makes it a priority to pass the pharmacare legislation before it adjourns for the summer.

Second, we ask all provincial and territorial governments to sign on to new bilateral agreements with Ottawa before the end of the year. The pharmacare legislation enables the creation of these new agreements through which federal funding would flow to expand prescription coverage.

Third, the federal government must immediately appoint a committee of experts – including those from the cancer and cardiovascular diseases communities – to build the pharmacare program.

Fourth, we need the expansion of pharmacare to cover prescriptions for cardiovascular and cancer drugs.

An expanded pharmacare framework offers a lifeline for millions of people in Canada. It is time for federal, provincial and territorial governments to deliver it.


About the authors:

Andrea Seale

Andrea Seale is CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society.

Doug Roth

Doug Roth is CEO at Heart & Stroke.


About Demian Vernieri 416 Articles
Demian is an Argentinian retired musician, avid gamer and editor for the Montréal Guardian, Toronto Guardian, Calgary Guardian and Vancouver Guardian websites.