Prescription Drugs and the Election


by John W. Warnock
November 5, 2021

The issue of the availability of prescriptions drugs has arisen in this election. The NDP has proposed a universal program where these drugs would be available to all for a cost of $15 per prescription. The Saskatchewan Party has countered with a proposal for a new drug program which would be targeted to those who would be less able to pay. For many years under the senior’s drug plan those with low incomes received subsidies.
Janice MacKinnon, the former NDP minister of finance, says we cannot afford the NDP plan and that all social programs should be shifted to only supporting those in real need. Universality is an outdated concept.
The NDP program has been endorsed by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and the Saskatchewan Health Coalition. But the NDP plan dodges a most important issue. What do we do about the high costs of drugs, the domination of the industry by large foreign-owned corporations which operate as a cartel, and the restrictions on generic drugs imposed on us by NAFTA?
This issue is addressed by economist Judith Maxwell in her column in the Globe and Mail Report on Business of this date. Maxwell is no radical, one of the Liberal elite around Ottawa. She points out that Canadian businesses who are responsible for providing drug coverage for their employees have done a much better job at getting lower cost drugs than have provincial governments. This issue was addressed by the Ministerial Task Force on the National Pharmaceutical Strategy which reported in 2006. But the provincial governments have taken no action.
Maxwell argues that “no government should expose itself to the financial risks of catastrophic drug insurance without a parallel strategy to control the costs of drugs.” She argues that the provinces should “work together to use their market power to negotiate better prices for drugs.” In doing so they “have to overcome their reluctance to extract full value from both the big international pharmaceutical companies and the Canadian-owned generic producers.” She suggests that the provinces join together and create a buying syndicate to bargain for volume discounts.
The Green Party of Saskatchewan proposed a different strategy in its briefs to the Romanow Commission and the provincial commission on health policy. They proposed the creation of a Crown corporation to buy prescription drugs from all sources, including countries like Brazil, India and Cuba, which have very good state programs for producing essential drugs and making them available to those in need. The Greens suggested that a provincial Crown corporation could negotiate an agreement with Cuba: in return for Saskatchewan exports, we would import cheap drugs. Twenty-five years ago this would not have been seen as a radical proposal, just common sense.

John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and political activist.

John W. Warnock
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