NDP call for pharmacare as party’s health critics tour the province

NDP leadership candidate Ryan Meili speaks to supporters in Prince Albert on Nov. 19. (Peter Lozinski/Daily herald)

Expanding the hospital and providing affordable services to the province’s most vulnerable are two concerns agencies and residents of Prince Albert say are at the forefront of local residents’ minds, the provincial NDP says.

Prince Albert Northcote MLA Nicole Rancourt and health critic Vicki Mowat sat down with the Herald following a day of meetings with local agencies to talk about what they were hearing in the community.

While the hospital expansion or rebuild remains a priority, it’s not the only issue people are talking about, Rancourt said.

“I’ve been doing a lot of doorknocking this summer already and almost every constituent that I talk to brings up concerns with regards to the cuts to mobile crisis and not having crisis services in the daytime during the week,” she said.

“We need to have a plan to address suicide in our community. We know the rates are way too high and need to be addressed. People are seeing the impacts of (mental health and addiction) concerns.”

The other topic brought up on Prince Albert doorsteps, Rancourt said, is the Victoria Hospital. An expansion or rebuild of that facility is one of the next major health projects on the province’s list. The premier has said the facility will be fully funded by the province.

Long waits in the emergency room, the size of the maternity ward and access to dialysis services tend to be some of the talking points, Rancourt said.

“There are a lot of families who spend a lot of time on the highway accessing (dialysis) services in Saskatoon when it could be expanded in Prince Albert. Those are some of the issues that have been brought up on the doorstep,” she said.

“Knocking on people’s doors, they’ve been talking about the impact of not having a new, bigger hospital with the long wait times in the emergency room and the overcapacity of the hospital.”

Mowat added that residents and stakeholders, both in Prince Albert and beyond, have expressed frustrations with wait times and with the affordability of health care.

“There’s a lot of frustration where people say we need access to health services and they’re not available when we need them,” Mowat said.

“You want to believe that if you’re in an emergency situation and need to go get care at a hospital that care will be available to you. We’re finding that’s simply not the case, which is quite concerning. Then there are issues we’ve been hearing a lot about the cost of medications being so high.”

Mowat added that the NDP has been advocating a lot for access to universal pharmacare.

“The cost of drugs keeps going up, and especially folks who are on a fixed income can’t afford that and are forced to make the decision between … groceries or paying for this prescription. If you look at some of the prevention roles those prescriptions have, it’s absolutely critical they get those medications.”

Mowat’s comments Monday afternoon came just days before a report was released federally calling for a universal single-payer pharmacare plan to provide affordable medications for all Canadians.

The council, which was led by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, released its report on Wednesday. It called the current system “fragmented, uneven, unequal and unfair,” noting that it results in higher drug costs and leaves about one in five Canadians without coverage.

It said the federal government should partner with the provinces to fund a drug plan that would begin in 2022, with out-of-pocket costs for a range of essential medicines limited to a $2 copayment per prescription. It would then expand to cover other drugs by 2027. Annual out-of-pocket costs would be capped at $100 per year.

The council said such a plan will require extensive negotiation between the provinces and the federal government. Saskatchewan’s health minister was part of a conference call with other provincial and territorial health ministers on Wednesday about the report but said the province wants to know more about Ottawa’s plans before it makes decisions.

“Saskatchewan will require more information about the federal government’s response to the Advisory Council’s report and in particular its funding commitment to make any decisions about Saskatchewan’s involvement in a National Pharmacare plan,” said the government’s statement.

Reiter has previously expressed support for “the concept of a national pharmacare program.” But in March he noted that “the devil’s in the details.”

NDP Leader Ryan Meili said he accepts the need for details. But he called on the provincial government to accept the principle of a single-payer plan and signal its willingness to opt-in if the price is right.

“Of course we will want to make sure we see the details before we sign and opt-in, but I think indicating some interest, which is something this government has failed to do, is absolutely appropriate at this time,” he said.

He said they should have been advocating for universal drug coverage all along, and pushed Premier Scott Moe to lobby federal party leaders to make sure it’s in their platforms.

“Going down the road of universal pharmacare is the right move for Canada,” he said. “It’s the right move for Saskatchewan.”

Mowat said that a pharmacare plan keeps the cost of drugs down because it allows the province to buy in bulk.

Other concerns Mowat and Rancourt heard surrounding transportation and domestic violence.

“We’ve been meeting with some stakeholders today and we heard about other concerns: access to services for seniors because of their limited transportation and for women and children being able to receive services in our community; and the high rates of domestic violence and the impact that has on our health system,” Mowat said. Rancourt added that some people are still uncertain what local engagement will look like or what local services will be supported as the rollout of the new, single health authority continues.

— with files from Arthur White-Crummey, Regina Leader-Post