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The cost of drugs: breaking the bank to stay alive Add to ...

Julie Easley had just graduated from the University of New Brunswick when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She was 23 and broke - with exactly $9 in her bank account.

Thankfully, in Canada, her medical care was free of charge - or so she thought.

In fact, while physician visits and in-hospital care like chemotherapy are covered by medicare, Ms. Easley soon learned that the essential medication she needed to take out-of-hospital was not.

"It was a shock to me that I had to pay for cancer treatment. That's not how it's supposed to be in Canada."

Drug therapies have become an essential part of treatment for many ailments, but costs of the latest and most advanced treatments have soared. The response from public health plans has been uneven and often inadequate.

Ms. Easley had no private drug insurance and New Brunswick has no publicly funded drug plan for those saddled with big drug bills.

Friends held fundraisers, she scrounged anti-nausea medication ($23 a pill) from other patients and she took out personal loans to pay for the prescription for filgrastim (brand name Neupogen), a drug to treat the side effects of chemo that staves off deadly infections ($1,600 a month).

When her cancer treatment was done, Ms. Easley was $26,000 in debt. Twelve years later: "I'm all clear of cancer, but I'm still paying for my cancer treatment."

Katharina Kovacs Burns of the Best Medicines Coalition, an alliance of consumer groups and patients, said the "system of drug coverage we have now is unfair, it's unethical and it makes no sense."

She said Canada desperately needs a national catastrophic drug plan because too many patients are suffering undue financial hardship.

There are currently 19 public drug plans (mostly for seniors and those on social assistance) and 1,000 private drug plans in Canada. Yet, many Canadians - three million by some estimates - still don't have sufficient coverage for "catastrophic" drug costs, which are defined as anywhere from 2 per cent to 10 per cent of family income.

"Drug coverage in Canada been described as a patchwork and the quilt has some gaping holes in it," said Steve Morgan, associate director of the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

About 40 per cent of Canadians have private drug insurance (about half of those have catastrophic coverage), 40 per cent have public health insurance (with big differences in deductibles and co-payments) and 20 per cent have no coverage and have to pay for drugs out-of-pocket.

Ultimately, coverage depends on where people live and where they work. Young, self-employed, and middle-income earners in smaller provinces are the most vulnerable.

Consider this: A person with a $20,000 annual drug bill - not unusual for a cancer patient or someone with a chronic condition like rheumatoid arthritis - would pay nothing in the Northwest Territories, roughly $1,500 in Quebec, $8,000 in Saskatchewan and $20,000 in Prince Edward Island.

"If this was the standard for medicare - for physician and hospital services - there would be a revolt in this country," Dr. Morgan said. "It's hard to believe we tolerate this situation."

Equally hard to believe is just how long the notion of catastrophic drug insurance has been on the table.

"This debate goes back to the beginnings of medicare," said Greg Marchildon, Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and Economic History at the University of Regina.

Pharmacare - meaning first dollar coverage of prescription drugs - was first formally proposed by Mr. Justice Emmett Hall in 1964.

Since then, programs have been introduced gradually, largely for seniors and welfare recipients. But as drug therapies have become an essential part of treatment and drug costs have skyrocketed, there has been increasing pressure to help working Canadians.

There have also been countless promises to create a national catastrophic drug plan.

The sticking point has been money.

Prescription drug spending exceeds $25-billion annually, with almost half coming from the public purse. The challenge, in public policy terms, is how to help those in need without spending more on those who already have coverage.

There have been several specific recommendations in recent years:

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