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The former chair of an advisory council that put forward a roadmap on pharmacare says he has been trying to impress upon the NDP and the Liberals the importance of taking time necessary to get legislation right.

Eric Hoskins, a former Ontario health minister who chaired a council that called for Ottawa to work with provincial and territorial governments to establish a universal, single-payer, public system of prescription drug coverage in 2019, said Tuesday there is a unique opportunity right now for pharamcare.

The supply-and-confidence agreement between the NDP and the Liberals, established in March, 2022, lays out shared priorities including pharmacare. A federal election is not expected imminently because of the agreement, which is designed to last until the fall of 2025.

The agreement lays out a timeline for pharmacare legislation to be passed by the end of 2023. No such legislation has been tabled, which has led to questions on Parliament Hill about the level of Liberal commitment to pharmacare.

The Globe and Mail reported Sunday that the NDP was willing to waive this deadline should negotiations, which are currently underway, take longer than to the end of the year and if the talks would result in a better bill.

In an interview with The Globe, Dr. Hoskins said Tuesday his preference would be to see a bill introduced by the end of the calendar year.

However, he said that during his conversations with both the Liberals and the NDP, he has been stressing for some time that it is more important to get the legislation right.

“It’d be great to see it now,” he said. “But it’s important that there be agreement and that both sides, both parties, be satisfied with the content of the legislation. And if that pushes it a little into 2024, I think it’s in Canada’s best interest for us to give that time to get it right.”

Dr. Hoskins said that the present moment offers the “best chance” on pharmacare.

“An opportunity like this may not come again, or certainly not for a long time,” he said.

Dr. Hoskins said that pharmacare has been discussed for 55 years, dating back to before medicare. The federal government passed the Medical Care Act in 1966.

NDP open to waiving end-of-year deadline for pharmacare legislation

“The clock is ticking in some respects but in other respects, it is not,” he said, adding that contracts and agreements are amended all the time. “It just requires the agreement of the two parties, so that’s what I’ve been stressing.”

Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, NDP House Leader Peter Julian said his party sent back a first version of pharmacare legislation shared by the Liberals. There are continuing discussions between the two parties on a second version, he said.

There is hope the new bill will be tabled in December and “we’ll see in the coming days what that brings,” Mr. Julian said.

Ahead of a meeting with cabinet, Government House Leader Karina Gould said she did not “think we’re going to get it passed by the end of this year.”

“We’ll definitely keep working, and those conversations are productive,” she said.

Health Minister Mark Holland said Tuesday he is not able to reveal the Liberal or NDP positions because of the negotiations underway.

The supply-and-confidence agreement laid out the terms by which the parties could work together, Mr. Holland added.

“If you allow yourself to be locked in by the rigidity of those words, instead of the spirit with which they represent, then I think you miss the point,” he said. “The idea was to find common ground; to find a way for Parliament to be stable and to function.”

There is a need to demonstrate commitment to pharmacare but also to respect “fiscal constraints,” Mr. Holland said, adding this amounts to a “difficult balance.”

Dr. Hoskins said that pharmacare is a “real pocketbook issue for so many Canadians” and there is a need to look at it from a cost-benefit approach for families, businesses and the health care system.

Pharmacare would be the biggest thing to happen in health care since medicare, he added.

In October, the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report estimating the cost of a single-payer universal drug plan from 2023-2024 to 2027-2028. It found that pharmacare would cost federal and provincial governments $11.2-billion in the first year, but the program would result in $1.4-billion in savings on drug costs in 2024-2025, which would increase to $2.2-billion by 2027-2028.

Last Tuesday, the Liberal government’s fall economic statement did not set aside new funding for pharmacare and the fiscal framework for future years left relatively little room for major new spending.

When asked Tuesday prior to Question Period if the country can afford universal pharmacare, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government has taken steps towards lowering drug prices over the past number of years but said there is more to do.

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