Breakenridge: Trudeau’s visit clarifies pharmaceutical care options

There may be common ground on this issue and a potential path to an agreement.

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It is still unclear what the purpose of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Calgary last week was. Yes, there was a “new” announcement about the “new” total of 1.3 million seniors now enrolled in the dental care program, but it’s not clear why our city needed to be the place for that. Will Trudeau return to announce the 1.4 million figure?

But while the trip may have been more of a photo op or campaign kickoff, the premier inadvertently helped provide some clarity around an important issue and helped vindicate a much-maligned position of the Alberta government.

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As soon as the ink was dry on the Liberal-NDP deal on national pharmaceutical care, the Alberta government made it clear it would likely “opt out” of the program. So it should not have been a surprise that the Pharmacare issue came up in a meeting between the Prime Minister and Premier Danielle Smith.

However, while it seemed like we were destined for another skirmish between Alberta and Ottawa, there may be common ground on this issue and a possible path to an agreement. What was surprising were Trudeau’s comments that helped illustrate why Alberta’s position wasn’t so unreasonable to begin with.

There was a huge backlash to that position, which gave the impression that Albertans would be left out of a vast and comprehensive national program. This was never the case.

Despite strong rhetoric about a new national pharmaceutical care program, there isn’t much real substance. The legislation simply outlines the government’s aspirations to improve “the accessibility and affordability of prescription drugs” and “work toward the implementation of universal pharmaceutical care nationwide.”

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Canada has universal health care, but it is only “national” in the sense that it exists in all provinces and territories of the country. Pharmacare is also a provincial jurisdiction, so Ottawa’s role is limited to dangling dollars in the hope that provinces will agree to spend them a certain way.

The feds have identified what types of drugs and what type of coverage they would like to see, but the provinces are not required to agree to that. Prescription drug coverage varies from province to province, so it stands to reason that any province would prefer a course of action that adapts or improves on what already exists.

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When asked last week about Pharmacare and Alberta’s apparent opposition, Trudeau noted that his government’s goal “is to ensure that the gaps in coverage that exist in every province in the country are filled in those two areas (i.e. , contraceptives and diabetes medications). . . That’s a goal I think everyone can agree on.”

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He went on to say that his message to Smith was that “we want to work with you in a way that makes sense to you, that is different from BC, different from Quebec, different from Ontario, different from PEI, but we want to work with you in a system that will ensure everyone in Alberta can access coverage.”

This would appear to align Ottawa with Alberta’s position, which has always been that if Ottawa wants to make financial contributions aimed at expanding prescription drug coverage, Alberta would be open to negotiating such an agreement. This is, and always was, a totally reasonable position.

If whatever deal Alberta ends up with deviates significantly from deals in other provinces that fit more closely with the kind of system the feds envision, it will be up to Albertans to judge whether the right approach was taken here.

At the end of the day, Ottawa needs the provinces to make this work, and the provinces have no obligation to take orders on a matter that falls under their jurisdiction.

“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs Monday to Friday from 12:30 to 3 pm on QR Calgary

[email protected]

Twitter: @RobBreakenridge

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