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The House of Commons will soon adjourn for a six-week holiday break without the government meeting the end-of-the-year deadline imposed by the NDP for passing national pharmacare legislation – a condition that was struck to keep the Liberals in power until 2025.

The NDP said Thursday that the two parties have established a new timeline for the bill.

With MPs set to return to their constituencies for the holiday break, legislation cannot be tabled until the new year and the parties are still hammering out details for what the bill could entail.

NDP health critic Don Davies said that negotiations “remain constructive” and progress is being made.

“We have therefore agreed to extend discussions to produce legislation by March 1, 2024,” Mr. Davies said in a statement Thursday.

Mr. Davies said progress toward a universal national pharmacare program is “more important than ever” with many people not taking medication they need because they cannot afford to. He also said that “we must get this right.”

A source, with direct knowledge of the Liberal-NDP negotiations, said a national pharmacare program is not attainable because of the massive cost of a universal, single-payer drug insurance plan, which would shift the financial burden from employers and people with out-of-pocket private plans to a government-run program.

The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Government officials have done various cost analyses that show it would be prohibitively expensive and the best approach is to provide coverage for a set number of drugs, such as those used by people with diabetes, the source said. To supply diabetes drugs alone would cost $1-billion annually, the source said.

Although the Liberal minority government is unwilling to sign on to a universal drug program, the source said the confidence-and-supply agreement both parties signed on to remains intact.

The NDP has won major concessions from the government on a range of issues – from anti-scab legislation to dental care – and there is no risk of them pulling the plug on the government before an election is called in 2025, the source said.

One of the stipulations in the original supply-and-confidence agreement penned in March, 2022, between the NDP and the Liberals was for progress on a universal national pharmacare program by “passing a Canada Pharmacare Act by the end of 2023.”

Last month, The Globe reported that the NDP was open to waiving the end of the year deadline on the pharmacare legislation.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said his party sent back a first version of pharmacare legislation shared by the Liberals. He also said there were discussions under way between the two parties on a second version of the bill.

When asked about progress on pharmacare earlier this week, Health Minister Mark Holland said this was an “extremely complicated space” and that efforts to find areas of common ground take time. He also said markers contained in the supply-and-confidence agreement were guidelines.

Mr. Holland’s office did not provide updated comment from the minister on Thursday.

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 in a recent interview it was his preference to see a bill introduced by the end of the year.

He said, however, that during his conversations with both the Liberals and the NDP, he stressed it is most important to get legislation right.

“It’s important that there be agreement and that both sides, both parties, be satisfied with the content of the legislation,” he said. “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 the present moment offers the “best chance” on pharmacare and warned an opportunity like this may not come again or “certainly not for a long time.”

His advisory council’s report calls on the federal government to pay for the incremental cost of implementing national pharmacare, estimating that it would cost $3.5-billion to launch the program with universal coverage for essential medicines.

The report estimated as the national formulary grows to cover a comprehensive list of medications, the annual cost would reach $15.3-billion.

“The council recognizes the very significant fiscal implications of this investment,” the report said.

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