If you were to ask random passersby for examples of distinctly Canadian things, you would be sure to collect an eclectic mish-mash of responses. These would likely be topped by maple syrup and hockey, perhaps with an honourable mention of colourful money and the CN Tower. Among these answers would likely be our universal healthcare system.
Given that nearly all developed nations, with the noticeable exception of the US, have adopted some form of free, accessible, universal healthcare, it may be considered odd that Canadians take such pride in a system that is not unique to them.
Statistics Canada reported in its 2013 General Social Survey that our health care system was our second greatest source of national pride, tied with Canada’s armed forces, with 64 per cent of Canadians polled reporting being proud of it.
Yet, despite the lavish praise, Canada’s national health care system lacks what many systems in other developed countries have: a subsidized prescription drug program.
Approximately one in 10 Canadians are forced to forego prescribed medication due to financial difficulties. Such difficulties are one of the many issues that the Government of Ontario chose to tackle in its 2017 budget with the introduction of the new OHIP+ program.
Having come into effect on January 1 of this year, OHIP+ provides more than 4,400 medications — that were only partially covered by the existing Ontario Drug Benefit plan — free of charge to anyone under the age of 25 in Ontario with a health card number.
“Young people aged 19-24 are less likely to have access to prescription drug coverage or the financial means to pay out-of-pocket due to higher unemployment and lower incomes,” wrote David Jensen from the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care’s Communications and Marketing Division. “The unemployment rate for youth (aged 15-24) in Ontario is almost three times higher than the unemployment rate for adults over the age of 25.”
Dr. Danielle Martin of U of T’s Institute of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation and the university’s School of Public Policy and Governance sees OHIP+ as a step forward for the province.
“The introduction of OHIP+ is an amazing accomplishment for young people and their families in Ontario. Doctors often see families in our offices who cannot afford to pay for their prescription medicines, and sometimes those medicines are lifesaving or critical to a child or youth’s quality of life,” explained Martin.
Martin is one of the authors of the Pharmacare 2020 report, which calls for universal national coverage of some medications, and she has defended single-payer health care systems before the US Senate.
She made it clear, though, that this program is just the first step. “Covering prescription medicines for people up to age 25 is a critical step on the road to universal pharmacare in Canada, and it will make a big difference for a lot of people. Now we just need to close the gap between ages 25 and 65.”
Painting OHIP+ as the best step toward a universal pharmacare program is not the most accurate depiction. A recent Parliamentary Budget Officer report shows that introducing a fully universal program right off the bat would in fact be cheaper than OHIP+ in the long-term.
This has prompted some criticism of OHIP+. U of T’s Dr. Jessica Ross is among its critics, stating that “OHIP+ is a small step forward, but not a smart one” in an opinion piece published by the Toronto Star. Instead, Ross supports the adoption of free pharmacare for Ontarians of all ages.
There are also concerns about how the province will pay for OHIP+ — with a $465 million price tag, the expansion will not come cheap.
Despite being included in what the Liberal Party describes as a balanced budget, the $465 million figure is dubious, as a breakdown is not included in the budget document itself. This caused Ontario New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath to postulate that the expansion was a last-minute addition to the budget.
Regardless, the reception among some U of T students has been warm. “OHIP+ is a net positive for students everywhere,” said UTSU Vice-President Internal Daman Singh. “We expect it to complement the UTSU plan, and we don’t foresee any negative impact.”
The more cynical among us may wonder about the timing of the expansion. It is not out of line to think that the introduction of OHIP+, in conjunction with the minimum wage hike and recently improved OSAP benefits, is a play by the Liberals to woo young voters before the upcoming provincial election this summer.
How effective is this move? Only time — and the ballot boxes — will tell.