Prescription drug coverage: how does Canada compare?

When Jennifer* was laid off, it wasn’t paying the mortgage she was worried about – it was paying her drug bill. The $24,000-a-year cost of Enbrel, used to treat her rheumatoid arthritis, had been covered by her employer. She remembers sitting in the boardroom being told she had been let go, thinking, “I’m going to be crippled because I can’t afford this drug,” she says. “I started freaking out. All I could process was, I’m not going to have a job – how am I going to pay $24,000 a year for a drug?”

She’s among the 10% of Canadians who have difficulty affording their drugs. It’s an issue that’s been discussed frequently in the past, and thrust back into the spotlight by Eric Hoskins, Ontario’s Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, who recently announced his support for a national pharmacare program.

Right now, each of Canada’s provinces has its own pharmacare system. But across the country, there are similarities: people on social assistance receive coverage either for free or for a minimal co-payment, and low-income seniors tend to be covered. Many provinces also provide catastrophic coverage for drug costs above a set amount, such as 4% of household income. Private plans, often employer-sponsored, also cover some costs.

Canada’s lack of a national pharmacare plan has been subject to rising scrutiny. Our patchwork system means many people aren’t covered, and we also have higher costs: Canada pays more for prescription drugs than other OECD countries, something the Pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance is trying to lower by negotiating as a nation. An article published in this week’s Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that the total cost of a national pharmacare program would actually be less than what is currently spent by the combination of public and private drug plans and patients’ payments.

A number of factors affect how much national drug programs cost taxpayers: the price paid for each drug (influenced by negotiations between the government and the manufacturer); which drugs are covered (decided by the government, usually based on cost-effectiveness); the number of people taking the drug (influenced by physician prescribing practices); and the percentage of the cost borne by the government (a policy decision).

But deciding to provide drug coverage to all Canadians is only a first step. Canadians would then need to decide exactly how the coverage would work. How much could we afford? What drugs will be covered? Here are three countries with three very different approaches that Canada could learn from if we decide to establish a national pharmacare program.

The UK: “one of the best”

As part of their health care, all citizens in the U.K. have their prescription drugs paid for. In England, most people pay a co-payment of $14.50 per prescription, although there are exceptions for vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly and those with certain conditions, such as cancer.

Prepayment certificates can help lower costs for those in England, offering a flat rate for co-payments for three months ($53) or a year ($188). WalesScotland and Northern Ireland have gone further by eliminating co-payments on drugs, which increases the chances patients will take required medications. And while some people in the U.K. have private insurance, it’s used for faster access to non-urgent procedures or a broader choice of specialists, not for drugs.

“The British National Health Service has one of the best systems,” says Steve Morgan, a professor at UBC who specializes in pharmacare.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) makes recommendations on whether many new brand-name drugs should be paid by the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS). “[NICE] looks at clinical effectiveness and cost effectiveness at the same time,” says Mark Sculpher, professor of health economics at the U.K.’s University of York. “The strength of the NICE process is its use of evidence and analysis, its inclusive stakeholder arrangement, and that it’s very open and transparent about how it reaches a decision.”

Since pharmaceuticals come out of the overall healthcare budget, however, paying for drugs can have unexpected results. “When NICE makes a recommendation for a new drug, which costs the NHS more money, the NHS has to find the money,” says Sculpher. “So it has to do less of other things – what economists call opportunity costs. And NICE has not formally considered those opportunity costs very carefully.” A new drug being funded, for example, might increase wait lists for surgery.

Through both better pricing and reducing over-prescribing, the U.K. has managed to lower costs. The country spends the same percentage of the world market share for prescription drugs as Canada does – despite having twice our population, says Marc-André Gagnon, assistant professor at Carleton University.

“Evidence-based formularies [like the U.K.’s] can shape prescribing behaviour considerably – it’s probably the easiest way to shape behaviour at a mass level,” says Danielle Martin, vice-president of Medical Affairs and Health System Solutions at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

France: the country of co-payments

In France, 99% of the population has their prescription drugs partially covered by the government. But the co-payments are much larger than the nominal amounts in many other countries.

The government coverage is divided into categories, from 100% for expensive drugs that treat serious illnesses, to 15% for drugs that have little medical benefit and treat non-life-threatening illnesses, and 0% for those that don’t have enough research behind them. Most drugs get 65% coverage. The rest of the cost is covered by patients, as co-payments.

Some groups are exempt from co-payments, including children, those who are low-income, and those who have one of a list of chronic illnesses, such as stroke, diabetes or Parkinson’s disease. And most people – 93% – have their co-payments covered by private insurance, which is often furnished by their employers.

The co-payment ladder is intended to help shape the market towards drugs that are more effective or necessary, and away from me-too drugs and non-essential medicines. But because private insurance covers the co-payment costs, the effect is basically negated, says Gagnon.

That, combined with a culture of high medicine use in France, has led to higher costs. Despite a successful campaign to encourage the use of generic drugs, France spends more per capita on drugs than many other countries in Europe. France spends about 71% more than the U.K., and more than Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. As a result, it also has an unusually high number of pharmacies, and it is number three in overall drug expenditures worldwide.

Part of the reason is that France has a strong pharmaceutical industry – one of the largest in Europe. “France’s pharmacare system is interesting, but the country is plagued with a culture of over-prescribing,” says Gagnon.

New Zealand: the anti-pharmaceutical mavericks

In 1993, New Zealand created the Pharmaceutical Management Agency (PHARMAC), which looks at effectiveness, suitability and cost to decide what’s covered by the government and negotiates prices on behalf of the entire country. By tightly controlling the country’s formulary, it has been able to keep costs flat while drug use has risen. One study found that New Zealand paid 51% less than British Columbia for four large, established classes of prescription drugs.

Created in response to rising pharmaceutical costs, PHARMAC’s tough approach to negotiating has made the agency heroes in the eyes of those who advocate for strict price control and villains to those in favour of access to a greater variety of drugs.

“They have achieved the lowest per-capita spending on universal drugs in the world” while providing substantial coverage, says Morgan.

Durhane Wong-Rieger, president of the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders, sees it differently. “New Zealand has taken a very draconian view towards this. Unfortunately it means that most of the patients don’t get any access to even what we would consider standard medicines, and they are blocked out of any of the innovative medicines.”

Morgan disagrees. “The New Zealand formulary is extraordinarily comprehensive,” he says. “They reign in on drugs that are specialty drugs that don’t have proven value for money and even in that regard New Zealanders still have access to quite a few therapies.”

Still, the New Zealand approach is probably too extreme to be replicated in Canada, says Gagnon. “I don’t think it could work here. It’s based on the idea that you have one reference drug per category,” he says, referring to the fact that the system only reimburses the lowest-priced drug in each therapeutic category. “For Canadian doctors, I think they would think this is absolutely unacceptable.”

Morgan adds, however, that while only the lowest-priced drug is funded when it comes to patented drugs,  New Zealand funds several drugs in “therapeutic categories with lots of generics.”

Moving beyond costs

Some argue that focusing on countries that are good at controlling costs isn’t enough. “We’re beyond the day of just looking at what the cost per drug is; we’re beyond the day of just looking at what the impact on the budget is,” says Wong-Rieger, who argues that good access to drugs helps lower costs in the system overall. “The real challenge is to make sure that we’re getting the right medicine to the right patients.”

But Martin argues cost to patients is part of that formula. “We know that we have very high rates of cost-related non-adherence – people not taking their medication at all, or as prescribed, specifically because of concerns about cost,” she says. “We are among the highest spenders in the OECD … and that hasn’t led to any longer life expectancy or any other improved health outcomes.”

While momentum seems to be building toward the idea of a national pharmacare system, the details remain unclear. These three countries provide models to learn from – and lessons in what to avoid.

*Name has been changed

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  • Ron St.Hilaire says:

    We live in a great country however, if you are a senior or require expensive medication…you are in great trouble.
    I had a private plan however spent my allotted help within the first month. I am senior and have limited resources.
    I declared personal bankruptcy 5 years ago… and over the past 2 1/2 years have said goodbye to my wife 5 times and spent 160 days in hospital. Today, each month I pick and choose what drugs I can afford. I am saddened about those older sick people I meet in the ER’s with the same story. Nobody cares because as we age..our voices become silent.
    Sorry to share this.

  • Sheila A. Hands, R.N. says:

    The U.K. has had subsidized drugs since at least the 1940’s. When I came here in 1972 I was shocked to find that prescription drugs cost MORE than over-the-counter ! Now, 47 years later, it’s about time, that Canada’s health service was brought up to civilized standards.

  • Vaughan miller says:

    A integratEd national pharmacare system would be beneficial for all Canadians. In turn I believe the initiation of a comprehensive program would not only reduce the overall costs of the current process, but would have a positive influence and direct linkage in turning down the cost associated with administering other areas and aspects of our health care system in Canada.

  • Trevor Allen says:

    What is Canada’s argument for not participating?


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  • Patricia Lawrence says:

    I am a 71 year old woman, still working part-time so that I can have 80 percent coverage for the six prescriptions I take, and so I can afford to pay rent and survive. I am very tired, and would like to retire, but can’t afford it because of this issue and because I live in Vancouver, one of the most expensive cities to live in in Canada. My best friend, who lives in Alberta, never pays more than $25/prescription. Three of my medications cost over $300 each for a 90 day supply. If I had to pay full cost, I would have to stop taking them. As a diabetic, this is not an option.

    I have worked all my life, and feel that as a senior, I should be entitled to a break. If I retire, I would be eligible for Fair Pharmacare and free MSP on my small income, but I would have to send in two years worth of my lowered income shown in the Notice of Assessment to “prove” that my income will have been reduced. What am I supposed to do for the two years plus to cover the cost of my drugs if I’m no longer working?

    This system needs to change with universal pharmacare across the nation.

    • Ron St.Hilaire says:

      Totally agree… I am in a similar situation….however I can no longer work. I do without drugs and have suffered because of … especially heart and diabetes drugs. I too wished we had help. We are old and most of us no longer have a voice.
      At least one than is listened to. Tough!

  • Haki Failey says:

    In the UK all medications that sustain life are free provide you have a listed medical condition and have a medical exemption certificate. Conditions includes cardiac, diabetes, thyroid, cancer, etc. Canada should do the same.

  • Lorenzo Ledesma says:

    Very interesting topic!

  • Greg Abbott says:

    The UK system seems to be the best fit for our culture and demographics, we could see an overall 50% reduction in spending and a much higher rate of health realted improvements due to better accessibility…

  • Lyndon Bournon says:

    What it comes down to is whether people have to pay significant monies up front. In an ideal world, no one should have to consider whether they can afford medication. A big problem in Canada is that there is no consistent approach by the provinces – this also applies to ambulance charges, licensing for certain jobs ( teaching, for example), etc., etc.

    • Lyndon Bournon says:

      To add to this….my wife and I take meds for blood pressure, and she takes insulin. Additionally, I take methylphenidate re ADHD. Hitherto, these $600/month costs have been covered by my work insurance and Pharmacre, but once I retire we will be faced with high med bills. We live in MB. I know that in ON her diabetes-related items would be free, and if we return to my native UK we would have to pay almost nothing for the whole lot!

  • Jess says:

    Thank you. My vision saving medications cost me $5000/year. In Ontario, Canada we have a Trillium Drug Benefit program for low income people, but 5 out of 6 of my medications are not on the formula list. So, the 5 that need to be ‘approved’ for limited use via the Exceptional Access Program & the doctor has to send in the form. However, nothing EVER gets approved. Ever. So, someone that has NEVER looked at my eyes, so met me in person, tells my doctor & me that the treatment that is preventing me from going blind is not effective and we’re not paying. By the way, I had a job and insurance and lost it, like lots of people do. I never smoked, drank, or did drugs. I always ate healthy and exercised. My point is this can happen to anyone anytime, in a blink of an eye you too can be blind.

  • Bob Foss says:

    Guess everyone has a different story. I’m on U.S. Medicare (half of us Americans are on government programs). It is $104 a month. I have the option of government-subsidized prescriptions but my former employer (U.S. military) picks up my prescription costs. Having lived in Canada, Britain, and the U.S., each has advantages, but the U.S. system is quick, high quality, and for me very low cost. Medicaid is free, and military Tricare and VA are free. Medicare is like I said $104 a month and covers most things. You can get a supplemental plan if you want to cover what they don’t, or sometimes your employer covers it. My relative in Alberta waited over a year for knee surgery and it didn’t help much by the time she got it. Guess Americans would never go for long waits like that.

  • Mitchel says:

    This information is good enough to get more knowledge about health issue and price value of drugs. Thanks a lot.

  • Mannat says:

    The price of the prescription drugs are less worrisome than the content of the drugs. More and more drugs are being approved by FDA and Health Canada with more and more side effects that are acceptable. While they are only treating the symptoms of the disease and not addressing the disease itself! For example: the recent news on Onglyza, Astrazeneca’s oral diabetic drug!

  • Cynthia Johnston says:

    Fully support ongoing campaign and advocacy for a national pharmacare program that will see everyone have the medications they “need” – with caveat that it must be integrated/aligned to the ongoing work at CMA (@Dr_ChrisSimpson) to ensure physicians and patients choose well and with the appropriate evidence the medications they “need”.
    In the shorter term – Ontario ((@DrEricHoskins) should ensure that individuals who require expensive ongoing meds (e.g., arthritis as with story and HIV and others) are not forced to go through hoops regularly with Trillium to prove they are worthy of funding assistance – or worse, quit working so ODSP is available.

    • Chris Bonnett says:

      This is good advice to Minister Hoskins. We don’t need to wait for the big bang of a national pharmacare program to make important improvements in how existing drug plans – provincial and private – are managed and coordinated. Too many people experience way too much frustration and harm from systems that are still largely paper-based and disconnected.

      Cancer drugs would be a really good place to start…but we shouldn’t stop there.

  • Don Taylor says:

    A much needed primer on an important aspect of healthcare. Thanks.

  • David Henry says:

    This is an important article on an important issue. The topic is also being featured in ‘The National” on CBC tonight (Thursday March 19). My experience for many years was in Australia, which has had a national pharmaceutical benefits scheme since around 1950. Since 1993 the pricing of new drugs has been based on an evidence-based assessment of their value. In 2013 the average per capita cost of medicines in Australia was $435 for full coverage, compared with around $620 for incomplete patchy coverage in Canada (the AUD and CAD are approximately equivalent). Drug prices in Australia are higher than in New Zealand (featured above) and there appears to be less discontent about the operation of the program. If we obtained Australian prices through a national scheme in Canada, which I think is quite achievable, we would save around $6.8 billion annually, close to what Steve Morgan and colleagues have calculated from their models. Canada is very well equipped to establish and run such a program and the up-front costs would be quickly recouped through savings on drug costs. One feature of the Australian program we should not copy is the high co-payment levels (currently up to $37.70 per item); we and others showed that this led to financial hardship. As Brian Goldman has stated elsewhere ( the main impediment to implementing a ‘no brainer’ policy that will save lives and money seems to be the fear of federal politicians of the contemporary Ford-esque view that politicians must not spend any new money, even on essential infrastructure such as this.


Vanessa Milne


Vanessa is a freelance health journalist and a form staff writer with Healthy Debate

Andreas Laupacis

Editor-in-chief Emeritus

Andreas founded Healthy Debate in 2011. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ)

Mike Tierney


Mike is the Vice President of Clinical Programs at Ottawa Hospital.

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