Pharmacare bill to be tabled by March 2024, Liberals and NDP confirm

The Liberals and the NDP have agreed to extend pharmacare negotiations into 2024, with a new goal of introducing legislation by March 1.

“Pharmacare will impact so many Canadians, which is why it is important that we get this right — and this takes time. That is why the government and the NDP have agreed to introduce pharmacare legislation by March 1, 2024,” said Christopher Aoun, spokesperson for Health Minister Mark Holland, in a media statement.

“Conversations with the NDP continue to be incredibly productive and collaborative.”

NDP health critic Don Davies confirmed the deadline and said the tone of negotiations with the government remain positive.

“We know that many people are not taking the medication they need because they can’t afford to, and this is getting worse as Canadians are struggling with the high cost of living,” Davies said in a media statement.

“Given that context, continuing progress toward a universal national pharmacare program is more important than ever. We must get this right.”

Liberal-NDP negotiations on a pharmacare bill are making progress, says NDP health critic Don Davies. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

New Democrats were the first to confirm legislation would be delayed until March. A senior government source later confirmed the new deadline.

The Liberal minority government relies on New Democrats’ votes to pass legislation through a formal confidence-and-supply agreement both parties signed. Under that agreement, the NDP agrees to support essential government legislation in exchange for the Liberals advancing several NDP policy priorities.

According to the wording of that agreement, one of those NDP priorities is to pass “a Canada Pharmacare Act by the end of 2023 and then [task] the National Drug Agency to develop a national formulary of essential medicines and bulk purchasing plan by the end of the agreement.”

The Liberals have been under pressure for years to deliver on pharmacare. In 2019, an advisory council appointed by the federal government recommended establishing a universal, single-payer public pharmacare system — first with an initial list of common and essential drugs and later with a comprehensive formulary. The advisory council estimated such a system would cost $15 billion a year once fully implemented.

The council also said that, once implemented, the pharmacare program would cut the sum Canadians spend on prescription drugs by roughly $5 billion a year.

It proposed a $2 co-payment for common drugs and $5 for less common ones. Fees would be waived for those on low incomes or social assistance.

In a recent report, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that a single-payer universal drug plan would cost federal and provincial governments $11.2 billion in the first year and $13.4 billion annually in five years.

The economy-wide savings, the PBO estimates, would be around $1.4 billion in 2024-25, rising to $2.2 billion in 2027-28.

But forecasts of higher-than-expected budget deficits for the next few years and lower economic growth in 2024 are raising questions about whether Ottawa can afford pharmacare right now.

Interest rates are at a 20-year high and the cost of servicing federal government debt has spiked from $20.3 billion in 2020-21 to $46.5 billion in the current fiscal year.

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