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After dire warnings from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and others, health critic Don Davies, shown with Singh in 2023, said Thursday he is hopeful his party can reach a deal on pharmacare with the governing Liberals by March 1.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The NDP’s lead negotiator in the pharmacare talks with the minority Liberals said Thursday he’s optimistic his party will be able to strike a deal with the government on new legislation and funding for essential medicines.

B.C. MP and health critic Don Davies showed the first signs of hope from the NDP that an agreement was possible after more than a week of public warnings to the contrary from senior New Democrats.

“We’re in the late stages, we’ve reduced the issues down to a handful,” Mr. Davies told reporters on Parliament Hill. “I’m optimistic.”

Legislation to create a universal, national pharmacare program was a key pledge granted to the NDP by the minority government when the two sides struck what’s called a supply and confidence agreement to keep the Liberals in power until 2025.

Such legislation was initially supposed to be passed by the end of 2023. After talks stalled on the first draft presented by the Liberals last year, the NDP agreed to a significant extension. The government now has to introduce the legislation by March 1.

However, after NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week, he said he had received no assurances that the government would meet the party’s demands. Critically, he said the bill must include the foundation for a single-payer pharmacare system.

Mr. Singh has repeatedly warned that the entire deal to prop up the government would be scuttled if the Liberals don’t acquiesce to his party’s demands and he has been skeptical an agreement could be reached. His top adviser, Anne McGrath, piled on to the pessimism Wednesday, telling CTV News that the talks were “not very promising at the moment.”

Birth control included in talks for new Liberal-NDP pharmacare deal

Twenty-four hours later, Mr. Davies had a very different outlook. He said the two sides are ”working well together” and have “made a lot of progress.” The B.C. MP is leading the negotiations with Health Minister Mark Holland.

“We have come to agreement on a lot,” Mr. Davies said. “I know what’s outstanding, and the things that are outstanding, to me, are not unreachable issues.”

On Wednesday, The Globe and Mail reported that the talks for new pharmacare legislation had expanded to also look at the federal government directly covering two broad categories of pharmaceuticals: diabetes medication and contraceptives.

Two sources told The Globe that negotiations are under way to determine how many drugs to cover for these two categories and how to determine which drugs qualify.

The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive negotiations.

Mr. Davies said the NDP wants the government to cover an entire class of drugs rather than picking and choosing only some from each category.

He said the NDP would always push for more classes of drugs to be covered but he also said the party never expected to get everything at once.

“We’ve always said that we accept an incremental approach,” he said. “Starting with classes of drugs, and getting that paid through the single-payer system, I think would be really exciting. And it would be historic.”

Last year, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that, once fully implemented, a single-payer, universal pharmacare program would cost $38.9-billion a year. However, given how much is already spent on public plans and direct federal drug costs, the incremental additional cost of a universal program was estimated at $13.4-billion.

Mr. Davies said how the program would be funded hasn’t been determined, but one option is that instead of paying premiums to private insurance companies, Canadians would pay a pharmacare levy to the federal government.

“Canadians are going to have to pay for their pharmaceuticals, but what I’m saying is by rearranging it into the single-payer system, they’ll pay less,” he said.

The Conservatives have not previously supported pharmacare. On their way into Question Period on Thursday, more than a dozen Conservative MPs declined to say whether they supported the government funding contraceptives and other medications for Canadians.

With a report from Kristy Kirkup

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