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A pharmacy fills prescriptions in the border town of Cornwall, Ont., on March 25, 2020. Many Canadians automatically lost their workplace medical coverage the day their job ended, while others will lose benefits a month after being laid off.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Mass layoffs triggered by COVID-19 have left millions of Canadians without workplace drug coverage and labour leaders are urging the federal government to pay for their medication as a step toward setting up the long-promised national pharmacare program.

The Canadian Labour Congress is spearheading a campaign to get Ottawa to cover workplace medication, saying millions of struggling Canadians won’t be able to pay for drugs for themselves and their families because of loss of income.

More than eight million laid-off Canadians have already applied for the $2,000 a month Canada emergency relief benefit. Many automatically lost their workplace medical coverage the day their job ended, while others will lose their benefits a month after being laid off.

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“People are struggling, even if they are getting $2,000 a month, but having to pay for their medication, which is expensive, puts you in even more difficulty,” CLC president Hassan Yussuff said Monday.

“If any one of these people should get sick and have to go into the hospital because they can’t afford medication, it just make the problem even worse as we are trying to clear beds for people with COVID-19.“

Mr. Yussuff said it is likely that some companies that are getting federal money to cover 75 per cent of their employee wages could also refuse to pay for drug coverage to save money, particularly if the business is shuttered.

The CLC leader said the federal government should pick up the tab for workplace medical coverage for people who have lost their jobs as result of COVID-19. The provinces, which are responsible for health care, are unable to pay for this kind of coverage, he said.

“That would allow all these people to have coverage and, more importantly, the federal government could then work towards the long-term goal of full pharmacare with the provinces,” he said.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office did not offer a specific response to the call to cover medication on Monday, but it conceded these are incredibly challenging times for Canadians.​

“We will continue to do everything we can, like we did with programs to help families impacted by COVID-19 put food on the table and keep a roof over their head, as well as to help businesses keep their employees on the payroll,” the office said in a statement.

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As it is, Mr. Yussuff said between 3.5 million to four million Canadians were already without drug coverage and the labour movement strongly supports Dr. Eric Hoskins’s government-commissioned 2019 report that called for a single-payer national pharamcare program at a cost of $15.3-billion if fully implemented in 2027.

Dr. Hoskins said Monday the coronavirus has exposed the need for universal pharmacare to an even greater extent, adding if it had been in place prior to the pandemic, the hardships being faced by people losing their benefits would not be an issue.

“It has really underlined, or exposed even more, the vulnerability of Canadians and the challenges that they face to access prescribed medicines,” Dr. Hoskins told The Globe and Mail.

“There’s an opportunity to respond now in a way which will protect access for these individuals and their families and also move us one step closer toward pharmacare.”

Before the pandemic hit, Dr. Hoskins said there were estimates that approximately 20 per cent of Canadians struggled to afford prescription medications, adding that this figure has grown because of COVID-19.

Right now, Canadians pay for prescription drugs in one of three ways: through extended workplace and privately purchased health plans; through government drug plans, which are often reserved for the poor, for seniors and for those with catastrophically high drug bills; or out of their own pockets.

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Jerry Dias, national president of labour union Unifor, said some employers have kept medical benefits in place, but many others companies have cut medical coverage for workers who have been laid off.

“The simple reality is that workers with family responsibilities cannot afford to lose not only their jobs, but their health care benefits that they depend on so much for themselves and their families,” Mr. Dias said.

Dr. Hoskins said the federal government could ask the provinces and territories to bring people into their formularies as an interim step toward national pharmacare and that it could offer to cover the costs.

About 20 per cent of Canadians, or more than 7.5 million people, are estimated to be either uninsured or underinsured for prescription drug costs. A national pharmacare plan would address that, and aim to save billions of dollars. Globe health reporter Kelly Grant explains.

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