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Health minister asks Senate to speed up so pharmacare can be launched by spring

The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The federal health minister has asked the Senate to move as quickly as possible to pass the government's pharmacare legislation so that Canadians can start accessing medications by next spring, he told reporters Wednesday.

A pharmacare bill drafted by the Liberals and the NDP made its way through the House of Commons in June, but still needs to be studied by the Senate.

The plan is to make birth control and diabetes medication available to anyone with a prescription and a health card as part of a universal, single-payer program.

"My objective is to see every province, every territory by April 1 of next year see these drugs flowing. That's my goal," Holland said.

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"So I'm saying to the Senate: I appreciate their process, I understand that they need a rigorous process, but I'm asking them to be as expeditious as possible."

Holland cited affordability and the prevention of health emergencies as the reason for his haste. Pharmacare is also expected to be highlighted in both the Liberal and NDP campaigns for the next election, which is scheduled for fall 2025.

Holland can only begin formal negotiations with provinces and territories to administer the program when the bill receives royal assent, but said he's not waiting to start talking to his counterparts about what those deals could look like.

"Then, I want to see these drugs flow immediately," Holland said.

Provinces like British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, which already cover many of the medications that would be offered, have expressed enthusiasm about Ottawa's proposed program.

Willing provinces could start delivering drugs before the end of the year if the legislation is approved by the Senate quickly, said Peter Julian, the NDP health critic.

"There's no reason for a delay for the provinces that are already interested," he said.

But Alberta and Quebec have both expressed a desire to opt out of the federal drug plan and ask for equivalent funding instead.

Earlier this month, Ontario's Health Minister Sylvia Jones bemoaned the lack of details she has received from the federal government.

"We're still trying to figure out when the federal government is going to share their plan," she said on June 5 in the legislature.

The Liberals budgeted $1.5 billion for the program over five years.

The bill senators are set to study also sets out the principals that would guide a potential full-fledged, universal, single-payer pharmacare program.

It sets a one-year deadline to create a national list of essential medicines and initiate talks with provinces and territories about expanding coverage under the pharmacare program.

There is also a one-year deadline for the Canadian Drug Agency to develop a strategy to purchase medicines in bulk to lower the cost of drugs.

It's important to get the clock ticking on those timelines, Julian said.

"All of these things help to contribute to moving forward on pharmacare," he said.

"I have constituents that are struggling to pay for their heart medication that keeps them in good health."

Senators have already seen the bill through second reading, but still have to study it at committee.

The Senate is still scheduled to sit for another week before rising for the summer, but the committee has not yet scheduled a meeting.

The NDP has met with Senators to encourage them to pass the bill quickly, and perhaps even study the bill at committee over the summer to move things along, Julian said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press