LABOUR DAY GREETINGS!
I want to wish a very Happy Labour Day to all workers, without whom not one penny of profit would be made; nor would any public services be delivered!! As we celebrate Labour Day together, I encourage you to take a moment and think about the importance of the labour movement and the benefits it has brought to working people across our country.
The celebration of Labour Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate unions’ victories and to honour the past sacrifices. The effort of union activists in the past has resulted in benefits that the workers of today now enjoy. Unions have brought us the week-end, standard hours of work, vacations, improvements to workplace health and safety, maternity leave, paternity leave, increases to the minimum wage, and, more recently, an enhanced Canada Pension Plan.
Labour Day is a day when we take time to enjoy the holiday we created, through our political action. Labour Day is a perfect day to recommit to taking action to fight for vital protections and benefits for all workers. In that spirit, I am very pleased to announce that Canada’s unions are marking this Labour Day with the launch of a Pharmacare campaign to win a universal drug plan for all Canadians. (aplanforeveryone.ca)
Canadians have the second-highest prescription drug costs in the world next to the United States. Working Canadians and their families feel the hit every single day. Nobody should be forced to choose between paying for groceries and paying for their prescriptions.
In Windsor, Ontario, a worker was hospitalized when his employer went bankrupt. Lying in his hospital bed, he was given notice that his health benefits would be terminated in 30 days. Just like that, he was plunged into a new insecure reality of being unable to afford the medications he needed.
A family couldn’t afford the inhalers their child needed for asthma. The nurse gave them samples to get them by until their next appointment, but making it to that appointment meant missing a day’s pay, so the family didn’t get more samples. The child’s asthma got worse, resulting in a day’s-long stay in hospital. “Lack of drug coverage hurts patients and it hurts the entire health care system,” says the nurse who was trying to help the family. “For this child, not being able to afford inhalers costing approximately $70 for three months’ treatment led to a stay in hospital costing about $1,000 a day.” This story is not unusual — one in 10 Canadians cannot afford to fill their prescriptions. “If you are a young worker, if you are a lower-income family, you are especially vulnerable,” she says. “It shouldn’t be this way. We are the only country with a universal public health care system that does not provide universal coverage for prescription medicines.”
Dr. Danyaal Raza is a family physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and is the board chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, another organization advocating for a universal prescription drug plan. Dr. Raza points out that advances in prescription medications make it possible for people with chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes to live healthier lives. These benefits may be lost, he says, if people face difficult choices because of finances. “When I prescribe a medication to treat diabetes and keep a patient’s sugars under control, I shudder to think they may have to buy cheaper, less healthy food to afford what’s been written on the prescription pad,” Dr. Raza says. “What difference are we making in people’s health if we are asking them to sacrifice food in order to afford medication?”
“It’s not every day in public policy that we’re presented with a program that includes more people and saves money at the same time,” he adds. “The federal government needs to hear from individual Canadians, labour organizations, non-governmental organizations and private-sector employers that enough is enough — Medicare has been incomplete for decades, and prescription drugs have been a big missing piece.”
Changes in Canada’s labour market make the need for a universal prescription drug plan all the more crucial. Dr. Steve Morgan is a professor of health policy at the University of British Columbia. This is what he has observed: “We are seeing trends in the labour market that suggest that inequalities in access to prescription drug coverage and, therefore, inequalities in access to drugs themselves, are getting worse. Growing numbers of Canadians are stuck in precarious jobs, working for low wages, part-time, or as self-employed contractors. On top of income uncertainty, that also means being less likely to have prescription drug coverage.”
About 8.4 million working Canadians do not have prescription drug coverage. That includes almost three-quarters of people who work part-time. “That has a real impact on millennials coming into the labour market. Younger workers are very reliant on part-time jobs and jobs in smaller organizations that don’t have benefits packages.
Ben is a recent high school graduate in Nova Scotia. Ben is saving with the goal of studying culinary arts at college. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age one. “My mother works two jobs, one of which she keeps because it provides drug coverage to finance some of the costs of my insulin, syringes, test strips and glucometer. If I enroll in college, I can remain covered by her plan until I’m 25 or just 21, if I’m not in school. I face a lot of uncertainty about the future. I want to work in the restaurant industry – a sector where employer health benefits are rare.”
Dia is a young woman who is working in Ontario for a small non-profit with no benefits plan. Dia needs several medications to control severe asthma. “My story reflects the realities of today’s labour market—with many workers in a revolving door of contracts and few employers offering group benefits. If you are chronically ill, you are often out of luck. I am getting a biologic drug through a clinical trial but when that ends, I have no idea where I will get up to $36,000 a year for only one of my seven medications.”
Kerri lives in Manitoba. She is a self-employed writer in her twenties who takes medications for asthma and ADHD. “When I graduated from university, I lost coverage under my dad’s employer group plan. Fortunately, Manitoba’s Pharmacare program covers most of my medication expenses, but my deductible is only affordable at present because I live with my parents and have a lower income. I am young, working to grow my business and explore other employment endeavours, but the prospect of deductibles rising with my income causes significant apprehension about the financial burden of managing my health in a possible future without insurance.”
Unions have worked for better health care for decades because it’s an issue that affects all working people. Unions were there in the 1960s as Tommy Douglas established Medicare in Saskatchewan, and saw it expand to the rest of Canada. Ever since then, we’ve continued to push, not just for better health insurance coverage for our members, but better public coverage for everyone.
Canadians aren’t benefiting from the current system. The only ones who do benefit are pharmaceutical companies, which can charge higher prices for commonly used drugs because they are selling to many buyers; and private insurance companies, which charge employers, unions and workers to administer private drug insurance plans. It just isn’t working.
In the United States, the cost of an Epi-Pen has risen by more than 480 percent since 2009. In 2009, pharmacies paid just over $100 for a 2-pack Epi-pen. Since then, the price for has skyrocketed to more than $600. The actual cost of the drug inside the Epi-Pen is only a couple of dollars. So the manufacturer is making incredible profits. We made some phone calls and found out that in Yellowknife at the Wal-Mart pharmacy, an Epi-pen will cost you $97.42. At Shoppers Drug Mart, an Epi-pen will cost you $136.50 (almost $40 more).
Canadians working in part-time, low-wage, precarious jobs are less likely to have employer health benefits, which means young workers and women are less likely to be covered for prescription drugs. Even Canadians who do have coverage through work run into trouble because of ever-increasing co-payments and deductibles. This should be unacceptable in a country like Canada. In our country, it’s supposed to be simple – if you’re sick, you should get treatment, regardless of where you live or how much you make. If you have a health card, you should have prescription drug coverage.
Many other countries have already got it right. Look at New Zealand, where a public authority negotiates drug prices on behalf of the entire country — 100 per cent of their population is covered. In New Zealand, a year’s supply of the anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor costs just $15 a year. In Canada, that same year’s supply costs $811. It’s time for Canada to learn from other countries’ successes and join the 21st century by combining our population’s purchasing power under one plan. An annual investment of $1 billion by the federal government will mean Canadians save $7.3 billion a year on the medications they need. Canadians already know this is the right move: a 2015 Angus Reid poll found that 91 per cent of Canadians believe our public health care system should include a universal prescription drug plan.
We are intensifying our calls for a national, universal prescription drug plan for all Canadians, to complete what is often called “the unfinished business of Medicare.” Our country’s complex, patchwork system of prescription drug funding, with widely varying levels of public and private insurance coverage, means there is uneven access to prescription drugs.
Beyond the inequities, this system is inefficient and expensive; Canada has the second-highest prescription drug costs in the world after the United States. We need federal leadership to implement Pharmacare, and we need action now. With a universal plan, national bulk buying to lower drug prices and one evidence-based drug formula for the whole country, we can save billions of dollars a year.
This Labour Day, Canada’s unions are renewing our commitment to public health care by making Pharmacare our top priority. We’re bringing together local unions and workers with health care advocates in communities across the country to launch our Pharmacare campaign. Join us, and together we can win a universal prescription drug plan for all Canadians, regardless of age, geography or income.