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Report On Business Employers, employees have opposing views on drug coverage, study says

About 58 per cent of the survey’s respondents agreed that a national pharmacare program would be good for Canadians overall.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canadian employers aren't opposed to changing the way prescription drugs are covered, but few are in agreement over how the new system should be paid for, according to a new poll.

The recent survey by consulting firm Aon Hewitt also showed that many businesses are uncertain about whether a national drug coverage program would be good for their employees.

The poll comes as some provincial and territorial health ministers are pressing for a national pharmacare system that would negotiate lower prices on drugs and spread coverage to more Canadians who have trouble accessing them. But details on what an actual program would look like – and where the money would come from – are scant, causing some apprehension among businesses.

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"There's a real recognition that the current system may not be perfect, but there's a nervousness about what any of the other solutions might look like," said Tim Clarke, chief innovation officer for the Canadian health and benefits consulting group at Aon Hewitt.

Mr. Clarke said that employers' voices are often lost in the debate over the future of drug coverage, even as they pay for nearly the same amount of drugs as governments. About 42 per cent of prescription drug costs are funded by governments, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. That compares to the 36 per cent that is paid for by private insurance, mostly through workplace benefit plans that support employees and their dependents. The remaining roughly 22 per cent is paid by individuals' out-of-pocket expenses.

About 58 per cent of Aon Hewitt's respondents agreed that a national pharmacare program would be good for Canadians overall.

"If you ask the question about what's best for Canadians as a whole, you tended to see a favouring of a government-run national pharmacare program," Mr. Clarke said, indicating that respondents may have been thinking about small businesses that have a hard time affording coverage, or entrepreneurs with no benefit plans.

But when asked about what's best for their employees, businesses had a different answer. Less than a third of them agreed that such a national system would be good for their staffers specifically.

"Some of this may be a healthy skepticism of what it would be if it were an entirely government-run program," Mr. Clarke said, adding the employers questioned whether the coverage would be completely adequate, and whether the government can be trusted to choose the right drugs for everyone.

In the event that the government does create a national pharmacare program, employers might not want to walk away. Mr. Clarke said many respondents felt there would still be a need or desire to offer upgraded coverage.

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Employers also couldn't agree on how the drug system should be covered, and Aon Hewitt noted that this is the greatest challenge lying ahead. Still, there was greater support for direct funding through contributions from individuals or employers, as opposed to funding from sources such as sales or corporate or income taxes.

Mr. Clarke said if he had to sum up employers' candid comments on a national pharmacare program, it would be "good idea, but the devil's in the details."

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