COVID-19 is a terrible virus but offers a valuable lesson. Longstanding health disparities based on race have become front page news, driving home the importance of protecting everyone’s health.
Yet, a new Angus Reid Institute poll shows that many Canadians don’t have insurance that covers essential medicines and many commonly skip taking their pills because of the cost. The national survey confirms that in the midst of a global pandemic, one in four Canadian households has inadequate prescription drug coverage. Women and racialized people (“Canadians who identify as a visible minority”) are more likely to report having no insurance or partial coverage. Lower income households are more than twice as likely to be uninsured or under-insured as those with household incomes over $100,000. Women are more likely to report being uninsured or under-insured than men.
COVID-19 has made this situation dire: more than half a million Canadian houses have lost prescription drug coverage during this year of unprecedented public health and economic crises.
The interaction between race, drug coverage and COVID runs deep. For instance, having poorly controlled diabetes increases the risk of dying from the virus. One would think that every Canadian with diabetes should be all set to face down the pandemic: insulin was discovered almost a hundred years ago in Toronto; the rights to it were sold for just $1; and we have a publicly funded healthcare system. Despite that, millions continue to go without the drugs they need, like insulin.
Accessing medicines can be the difference between life and death. Sadly, the death toll from COVID-19 in Canada has now passed 10,000. Chronic diseases like diabetes will kill more than 20,000 people this year. The number of lives saved through better access to medicine is hard to know exactly but it is likely in the thousands.
So, if we are “all in this together,” why are some riding crowded buses during a pandemic to jobs that don’t provide insurance for insulin and other life-saving medicines?
Canada is the only high-income country with a universal healthcare system that does not include coverage of prescription drugs. Our provincial plans provide some coverage for people receiving social assistance or some seniors. But too often, prescription drug coverage is a “perk” associated with a good-paying job in an organization large enough to offer extended health benefits to its employees. Racialized Canadians and women are less likely to work in such jobs than white Canadians and men, making pharmacare not just a health issue but also an issue of racial justice and gender equality.
Progress in addressing systemic racism has been slow in Canada. Implementing pharmacare would mitigate one of the ongoing harms of systemic racism: poor access to life-saving medicines among racialized people. And like other approaches to addressing systemic racism, implementing pharmacare would ultimately be good for everyone.
Every credible estimate of the cost of a national pharmacare program – including estimates by Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Department of Finance – has found that such a system will save Canadians billions more than it will cost governments to run.
Canadians understand this. The Angus Reid Institute study reported that people of all political stripes support the inclusion of medicines in our publicly funded system. Nearly nine in 10 Canadians support the idea of pharmacare, eight in 10 want their provincial governments to work with the federal government on it and more than seven in 10 say it should be a high priority for government – even during the pandemic.
One of the things COVID-19 has taught us, and continues to teach us, is that when we take collective action to support our health and that of our neighbours, it works. There are many impressive examples of reduced transmission and “flattening of the curve” – the fact that schools are open across most of the country is a victory, and the list goes on. Pharmacare could be another pandemic success story – the need has never been greater and the support for it never more clear.