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Health ministers gathered in Vancouver on Wednesday, where they began negotiating a new national accord.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Provincial and territorial health ministers have agreed to begin talks on improving access to prescription drugs, and are asking the new federal government to join the discussions.

The move, which gained the support of health ministers during a meeting in Vancouver on Wednesday, is the first step toward the possible inclusion of a national pharmacare plan in a new health accord, said Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, who introduced the proposal.

Mr. Hoskins, who has long pushed for more equitable access to pharmaceuticals, said the current negotiations on a new health deal provide a unique opportunity for governments to consider what a Canadian pharmacare plan might look like.

Such a plan might be a combination of public and private insurance, he suggested, that could start with an agreement among governments about what prescription drugs to cover.

"I like to believe we have a generational opportunity to really create a visionary document," Mr. Hoskins said in an interview on Wednesday.

While there is no guarantee that Canadian governments can agree on a national drug plan, he said, they need to try. "It would be unfortunate if we didn't take advantage of the opportunity and at least do the hard work to look at the possibilities and to have the courage to dream and to think of the bigger vision," he said.

A working group set up by the provinces will look at improving "equitable and appropriate access to pharmaceuticals based on evidence," according to a release issued after the closed-door meeting.

Provincial and territorial health ministers began two days of talks on Wednesday, and federal Health Minister Jane Philpott will join them on Thursday. The meetings are the beginning of what is expected to be a year of intense talks aimed at negotiating a new deal on health that will set national standards and deliver the stable funding the Liberals promised during the election campaign.

The federal Health Minister has indicated she wants to steer the talk away from dollars at this stage of the negotiations, but B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake said on Wednesday that is not likely. "You can't talk about health care without talking about dollars," he said. "It consumes 43 per cent of many of our provincial budgets."

The first day of the talks covered a range of topics, from physician-assisted dying to access to drugs for rare diseases to newborn screening, according to a summary released afterward.

While the topic of supervised injection sites was not specifically discussed, Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said in response to a journalist's question that his province will soon follow B.C.'s lead.

Insite, a supervised injection facility, has operated on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside since 2003, and a second site has just received federal approval to operate in the city's west end.

"We've watched the Insite project with great interest, and it works. We're in favour of this type of initiative," Mr. Barrette said.

With a report from André Picard

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