New Democrats are questioning the Trudeau government’s commitment to universal pharmacare after Liberal MPs helped torpedo an NDP MP’s private member’s bill to establish a legal framework for the national program.
Bill C-213, the “Canada Pharmacare Act” tabled by veteran B.C. MP Peter Julian, was defeated Wednesday at second reading by a vote of 295-32, with the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois, and the vast majority of Liberals voting against the proposed legislation.
The bill won support from two Liberal MPs, Toronto’s Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and New Brunswick’s Wayne Long, as well as Ontario Tory MP Ben Lobb. Three Green MPs and two Independents, including Jody Wilson-Raybould, also voted in favour of the bill.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement the vote was a chance for Liberals to act on a promise they’ve “been making for over 24 years,” dating back to the 1997 election.
“Today, they made it clear that they have no interest in helping Canadians who are struggling to afford their prescription medication — they would rather side with big pharma and abandon families across the country,” Singh said.
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Julian’s bill was first tabled a year ago and re-introduced in September after Parliament’s prorogation. It aimed to “establish criteria and conditions” provinces and territories must have in place before the federal government would make an unspecified annual “cash contribution” — private member’s bills cannot direct the government to spend money — to implement a pharmacare program in those jurisdictions.
The proposed legislation specified that, in order to receive federal funding, provincial and territorial governments would need to show a plan for a system that would be publicly administered by an authority accountable to the provincial government, universal, comprehensive, accessible, and “portable,” meaning citizens wouldn’t need “a minimum period of residence” before being covered.
The group’s final report recommended Ottawa work with provinces and territories on a pharmacare system reflecting those five principles: public, portable, comprehensive, universal, and accessible. The report noted one in five Canadians, or roughly 7.5 million citizens, either lack prescription drug insurance or have insufficient insurance to cover their needs.
The panel’s report also recommended the federal government “enshrine the principles and national standards of pharmacare in federal legislation, separate and distinct from the Canada Health Act, to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to partnership on national pharmacare and provide for a dedicated funding arrangement.”
New Democrats said that is precisely what Julian’s bill sought to do, with the party framing Wednesday’s vote as a “historic” opportunity to “make universal pharmacare for all a reality in Canada.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Singh in question period, ahead of the vote, that he agrees no Canadian should “have to choose between paying for their medication or putting food on the table” and is committed to universal pharmacare. He touted his government’s efforts to lower the costs of prescription drugs and conceded there’s more work to do.
But he said the NDP bill would infringe on provincial jurisdiction over health care.
“Unlike the NDP, we will not be imposing, in provincial jurisdiction, rules that are not worked out with them,” he said. “We respect the constitution on this side of the House and we’ll work hand in glove with the premiers to ensure… pharmacare universally across this country.”
Trudeau accused the NDP of pulling “a political stunt” and making it seem like pharmacare can be delivered with the “wave of a magic wand.”
At a press conference before the vote, Singh framed the vote as a chance to see if Liberals “meant what they have said” about supporting pharmacare.
Singh also denied his party was misleading Canadians by suggesting the bill’s passage would have ushered in pharmacare, saying it would have been a key “step in that direction.”
Asked if he could have secured more Liberal support by withholding NDP votes on government measures in the minority Parliament, Singh said he’s already made a commitment his party will not try to trigger an election while Canada is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jurisdictional issues surfaced during debates
Though NDP MPs denied the proposal infringed on provincial jurisdiction over health care and said provinces would not be forced to join in on the program, those issues also surfaced during House debates.
In November, Julian told the House of Commons a legal framework will “allow the government to negotiate the financial arrangements with the provinces that will bring into being pharmacare in our country.”
He noted a 2017 Parliamentary Budget Office report estimated universal pharmacare would save Canadians more than $4 billion a year. That same PBO report estimated it would cost about $20 billion a year to run a national pharmacare program.
But in the House last week, Bloc MP Luc Thériault said the bill “completely violates Quebec’s jurisdiction,” and said his party would oppose the proposed legislation as “the voice of Quebec in Ottawa.”
The province’s pharmacare plan has been “leading the pack” since 1996, Thériault said, and Quebec “will not entrust the development of its social programs to the neighbouring nation, whose coverage does not compare to ours.”
Liberals call for ‘collective approach’ with provinces
Liberal MP Darren Fisher, the parliamentary secretary to Health Minister Patty Hajdu, told the House he opposed the bill, despite supporting pharmacare, because he felt it disregarded the government’s desire for a “collective approach” with provinces and territories on social policy issues of national concern.
“We understand that the federal government must support provinces and territories as they implement pharmacare so it will become an enduring element of our health system,” Fisher said. “This simply is not achieved by imposing federal legislation without consultation and without cooperation of our partners at the provincial and territorial level.”
Julian pointed to union support for the measure, including in Quebec, and said it would be “dangerous” for it to fail “because that would reject public, universal pharmacare.”
Liberals promised during the 2019 election to “take the critical next steps to implement national universal pharmacare so that all Canadians have the drug coverage they need at an affordable price.”
The government revealed its next moves to create such a program in its 2019 budget, the last since the COVID-19 pandemic, including a new national drug agency to buy drugs in bulk and cut medication costs.
In September’s speech from the throne, the government said it “remains committed to a national, universal pharmacare program.” Liberals promised to “accelerate steps” with the provinces to achieve that goal.