OTTAWA — The New Democrats are planning to bring forward legislation to implement a national, universal pharmacare program.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian is set to table a private member’s bill at his first opportunity after Parliament resumes next week.

It will be modelled after the Canada Health Act, which is the legislative framework underpinning universal health care.

The New Democrats and Liberals both promised some kind of pharmacare program during the fall federal election campaign, but differ on the details.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he’s heard platitudes from the Liberals about the importance of a national drug plan, but he says Canadians struggling with drug costs cannot afford to wait.

“We’ve heard Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government use a lot of pretty words about the importance of national pharmacare, but we’ve not seen concrete action,” Singh told reporters Thursday. 

“Our health-care system needs this desperately.”

Singh said he has sent letters to Trudeau and to the other opposition party leaders asking for their support and offering a full briefing on the proposed legislation.

Opposition MPs, as well as backbenchers in the government caucus, can introduce legislation through private member’s bills, but without government backing they have a smaller chance of making it through the multiples stages of debate and rounds of voting to become law.

In December, provincial and territorial premiers expressed hesitation about a national drug program, with some saying they would rather see increased funding to address things like hospital overcrowding and growing wait times.

The premiers told Ottawa they want to be given the ability to opt out if the federal government does go ahead with a national drug plan. 

Singh said he understands the premiers might be cynical about working with Ottawa on health care after changes to the provincial funding formula implemented in 2017 led to reduced annual increases to the provinces’ health transfers.

The former Conservative government created the new funding formula for federal health transfers, which saw annual increases of six per cent that had been in place since 2004-05 reduced to three per cent increases every year.

During the 2015 federal election, the Trudeau Liberals promised to collaborate with provinces to negotiate a new health accord, but the final deal retained the three per cent cap. The Liberals also added $11 billion in funding over 10 years earmarked for home care, palliative care and mental health services.

Singh said he believes he can get provincial buy-in to a pharmacare program by reversing the formula that reduced the health-transfer increases — which he refers to as cuts — and beef up health funding to the provinces in addition to funding national pharmacare.

“The first step, I believe, to gain the confidence and to be able to undo some of that cynicism, is to end those cuts … reinvest in health care, show the provinces that we’re serious about health care, increase the investments in transfers to health care in general and then propose a national, universal program,” Singh said.

He remained vague about how much more money the provinces should get, saying only that an evaluation would be needed on how much they need.

With federal money on the table and more money for other services, Singh said he believes provinces will be convinced to pony up their share to help make a national drug plan a reality.

Trudeau has pledged to move forward with a “national, universal pharmacare plan.” He reiterated that promise in a speech he delivered to his caucus Thursday, but he gave no specifics on what it would include and when enabling legislation might be introduced. 

In his mandate letter to Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Trudeau said he expects her to “continue” to implement pharmacare, including establishing a Canada Drug Agency and a national drug formulary to help make purchasing medication more efficient and affordable for all Canadians.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2020.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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