Ontario’s approach to pension reform will close ‘gap in medicare’: Wynne

EDMONTON—It’s like dusting off an old playbook.

Premier Kathleen Wynne is hoping Ontario’s gambit leading to nationwide pension reform could be the prescription for a national pharmacare plan.

After using the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan as leverage to get Ottawa and other provinces to boost benefits under the Canada Pension Plan, Wynne wants the rest of the country to duplicate her province’s OHIP+ drug program, which will cover everyone under 25 starting in January.

“We can all agree, it’s a gap in medicare,” Wynne said, as the annual premiers’ conference wrapped up Wednesday.

“There’s a patchwork of programs across the country.”

Provincial and territorial leaders spent three days discussing the Trump administration’s drive to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the pending legalization of cannabis next July 1 and the deadly opioid crisis, among other issues.

In their final communiqué, premiers called on the federal government to “engage actively in discussions about establishing a national pharmacare plan to ensure Canadians have access to the medications that keep them healthy.”

Outside the downtown hotel where the leaders met, about 50 people held a rally urging governments to work faster on universal drug coverage of the kind New Zealand and other countries enjoy.

“The time for waiting is over,” Sean Meagher, executive director of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, said to cheers from the small crowd.

Wynne said there is a call on the feds to act.

“It’s not to talk about whether we need to do it,” she said in an interview, acknowledging some premiers have concerns about how pharmacare would roll out.

“There are questions about what it would look like, how it would be paid and how it would fit in with what’s already in place,” Wynne added.

“There’s a patchwork of programs across the country.”

Ontario’s plan, announced in the last spring’s budget, will cover 4,400 medications for four million children, teens and young adults at a cost of $465 million a year.

The medicines are from the same list of taxpayer-funded drugs provided to seniors and people on social assistance. Ontarians with private plans will likely enjoy broader coverage, experts say.

Officials in Wynne’s office stressed the pharmacare push differs somewhat from the pension strategy, given that it began when Conservative Stephen Harper was prime minister and was not open to the idea of improving the CPP.

There has been a more collaborative approach on national pharmacare, with health ministers across the country already discussing it at regular meetings and in working groups.

Wynne’s goal is to have the federal government as a full partner in pharmacare, using its bulk purchasing power to get better prices on drugs for the provinces and to co-ordinate a national system as a natural extension to medicare.

“We buy them in piecemeal plans and in fragmented ways across the country” in different provincial prescription coverage schemes, Meagher said, at the rally, estimating the potential cost savings at 30 per cent.

Wynne has the backing of Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yusseff, whose group, which has more than three million union members, will launch a campaign this fall advocating for national pharmacare.

“I said to some of the premiers that we will not quit until we win,” Yousseff said in an interview at the hotel where the leaders have huddled since Monday.

“On CPP, we had to convince one province at a time. It took us nine years. This will be quicker,” he predicted.

Yusseff said the fact that Wynne is heading into an election next June, and vulnerable given her second-place position in public opinion polls, won’t detract from the effort.

“She’s not just talking about something; she’s actually doing something on pharmacare,” he added.

“Heading into the next Ontario and federal elections, we have the ability to keep the pressure on; we’ve got millions of people, every day, struggling to buy food, pay the rent and afford the medications they need.”

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