OTTAWA – Julie White has a grown son who lives in Toronto and suffers from a condition that produces debilitating migraines one to three times per week.
Representing the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC), White told a Ottawa Pharmacare conference Saturday that by trial and error her son’s doctors found a set of drugs that would give him “an approximation of a normal life.”
The bad news is the drugs cost $5,000-$6,000 per year and are not covered by the Ontario government. When White lived in Vancouver, her son was able to get assistance on the costs from the BC government.
Now she pays for them personally out of her retirement pension income.
White is among the 20 per cent of pensioners who were able to carry their benefits into retirement, but these retiree benefits only cover her personally, not her parents, kids, nieces, nephews, neighbours or friends.
Despite what she calls her “Cadillac” plan, she is aware that as a retiree she herself is vulnerable to negotiations every two years over the contents and rules of that plan. During the present ideological attack on the wages and benefits of working people, retirees are feeling unease over the ability of unions to maintain these plans, particularly for retirees.
In a system where drug benefits are based on your job and not on your health needs, all workers can be made vulnerable regardless of how good their present benefit plans are.
That can include coverage by spouses who lose their jobs and family benefit plans. Sometimes spousal coverage is lost when the individual no longer continues to be one’s spouse.
White says the digital revolution reduced the market for newsprint, severely impacting members of her union, the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada. Those members had thought they had won the game of chance in the workplace casino for wages and benefits, but that revolution meant 30,000 of her members lost their jobs, and along with it, coverage for prescription drugs for themselves and in some cases their families.
Private drug plans are uneven, unfair, inconsistent, insecure and often stand in the way of negotiating a reasonable price for drugs.
“They have nothing to do with a person’s state of health,” she said.
Just because you work doesn’t mean you will necessarily have a drug benefit plan. White says 16 per cent of workers are now self-employed – that’s 2.7 million workers with no coverage.
White says she is aware of people who are unable to retire because of chronic conditions that they could not treat without insured coverage for drugs.
White was critical of so-called “flex-plans” that essentially made workers gamble on their future needs.
“We call them guess and hope plans,” she said. “You guess what your family will need and hope nothing unexpected happens. Good luck with that.”
White says that as an individual she wishes she could stand at the pharmacy counter and negotiate the price of her son’s drugs.
“I’d love to stand at the pharmacy counter and say, $600? How about $300? Okay maybe $400. That doesn’t work. You need thousands of others to effectively negotiate on price.”
Recent steps to negotiate better prices by provincial governments have impacted private plans – she says drug companies are looking to make up the difference by charging more on private worker plans.
While there are those who argue to maintain the status quo, she notes that they never advocate going back to negotiate all health care through private employer work plans. That in itself is telling.
White says the conclusion is straight forward – universal drug coverage was left out at the dawn of Medicare, now we need to catch up with other developed nations around the world. Canada is one of two major outliers — the other being the United States.
The evidence would suggest that a national pharmaceutical plan would reduce costs and make Medicare more sustainable.
She says one of the reasons why the pharmaceutical industry opposes such a plan is that it would give governments the ability to bargain better costs.
White says she’ll never forget her work with the Canadian Health Coalition travelling the country to hear stories about what the lack of access to prescription drugs means to individuals and their families.
In Southern Ontario she met a woman who told her she had to sell the family home to be able to finance the drugs her husband needed.
Is this the kind of future we all want?
Last week an EKOS poll showed 78 per cent of Canadians now favour a universal drug plan.
“When this (federal) government is gone we can finally work on this,” she said.
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