Prescription drug costs high in Canada

By Ashton Chugh

According to a new report authored by University of Calgary researchers, Canadians pay some of the highest prices for generic prescription drugs of any country.

“Our generic prices are in the top five highest in the world,” said Braden Manns, a co-author of the report “Addressing cost-related barriers to prescription drug use in Canada” that was funded by Alberta Innovates Health Solutions.

Canada does not have a nationally funded drug care program. Currently, all health-care costs are the responsibility of the provinces.

Often a patient’s drug plan requires that they bear some of the costs for their prescription medication, a system known as co-payments.

According to Manns, the underlying philosophy of co-payments is outdated.

“Historically, co-payments were put in place to limit inappropriate use of medications, so if you pay for something at the point of consumption you’re less likely to take it inappropriately,” Manns said.

Many Canadians suffer from chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, which requires medication that carry a low potential for abuse.

“[Today], limiting inappropriate use may not be relevant for the vast majority of medications,” Manns said.

There are often many approaches that a physician can take when treating a patient, including less expensive drug alternatives that are equally suitable for the patient’s needs.

Manns said that one of the reasons Canadians pay high costs for generic drugs is because doctors often don’t know of cheaper alternatives.

“There is very little training [for doctors] in terms of how much a medication costs. Often for a lot of conditions like high blood pressure, there might be half a dozen cheaper alternatives that are pretty much the same in how effective they are,” Manns said.

In many instances, the high costs of prescription drugs prevents patients from taking their medication.

“Studies have shown that having to pay [for medication] out of pocket can lead to people not picking up prescriptions,” said Manns.

To solve this, Manns advocates a federal drug plan to help cover the costs of medication paid for by patients. In this system, the federal government would buy prescription drugs in bulk, which, in theory, would lower prices for patients. This is in contrast to Canada’s current system of independently operated provincial and private insurance buyers.

“It would be expensive to set up, but there would be downstream savings because you may be able to lower the cost of medications as a central buyer,” Manns said.

Another barrier to a national drug plan is politics.

“The provinces don’t want to give up their powers or the responsibility of providing care unless the federal government gave them a huge stimulus to make them want to give up these responsibilities. If the federal government was willing to pay for it, the provinces would probably step in line,” Manns said.

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