Alberta intends to opt out of national pharmacare plan

The NDP has reached a deal with the Liberal government to introduce the first piece of a national pharmacare program that includes coverage for birth control and diabetes medication but it appears Alberta does not intend to be part of the agreement.

It’s a critical piece of the supply-and-confidence agreement between the two parties and comes ahead of a March 1 deadline to table legislation. Some final details may still be worked out but the Alberta government says it plans to opt out.

Dr. Rupindeer Toor started a petition last year aimed at advocating for federal universal access to free prescription contraception. Toor is the medical director and founder of The IUD & Women’s Clinic in Calgary.

When the news came out on Friday of a federal pharmacare deal that is to include full coverage for contraceptives, she was thrilled.

“The people who are struggling to afford contraception would struggle to support a child as well, so I think it comes down to prevention, which is always going to be cheaper,” Toor said on Sunday.

Toor is also the founder and chief medical officer of Project EmpowHER. A report commissioned by EmpowHER found that 83 per cent of Canadians supported universal coverage of contraceptives.

“Birth control is not free in Canada and the cost is a barrier for the most vulnerable in our society,” Toor said.

In an email to Global News on Sunday, Alberta’s health minister said that if the federal government pursues a national pharmacare program, Alberta intends to opt out, and instead intends to obtain a full per capita share of the funding.

A spokesperson from Adrianna LaGrange’s office said Alberta was not consulted on the national pharmacare plan “and there are limitations in the initial analysis and assumptions, including start-up investment and administrative costs to implement a cost-sharing model, that were not taken into consideration that add costs for the provinces.”

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The spokesperson said the vast majority of Albertans have access to contraceptives through employer or government health care insurance plans.

Toor said programs are not available to all Albertans and can be patchy and difficult to access.

Even with current coverage, she says 40 per cent of pregnancies are unintended, costing an estimated more than $320 million in Canada and $40 million in Alberta.

“I think the real question is why would the government not want to implement this? Do they not want to save the $40 million? Do they not want to make life more affordable for every day Albertans and improve the maternal health in this province and help support women to get back into the workforce and let them choose when they want to have pregnancies?” Toor said.

Poverty reduction advocates say the cost of birth control pills is an issue to low-income Albertans, youth, and newcomers.

“I’d be very curious to see what the alternative is,” said the executive director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, Meaghon Reid. “If it covers the same things and actually how it would be implemented because a lot of people can’t afford upfront investment in order to get medications and we know that people are skipping medication on a regular basis right now,” Reid said.

Reid said choice for women is critical as a poverty reduction method.

“People need to be able to choose how they plan their families.  Contraceptives are expensive. A lot of times are not covered under plans like many other drugs they often involve upfront cost for people to pay and they might not have that money at the time.

“It might be one of the first medications to go if people are really stretched so the covering of contraceptives, like the covering of insulin is pretty critical.  It would save a lot of women money, and we know that women are disproportionately affected by poverty,” Reid said.

The deal also includes insulin for Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, as well as additional diabetes drugs.

The email from the Alberta health minister’s office said: “All Albertans already have access to government-sponsored health benefit plans, which include drug coverage.”

Toor said birth control pills cost between $20-$50 a month and many people don’t have coverage.

“They would have to pay that out of their own pocket and we know that over a lifetime that people are paying up to $16,000-$20,000 for contraception, in their lifetime and that’s not even including menstrual products,” Toor said.

“If this government is thinking of ways to improve the lives of Albertans, this would be an amazing policy for them to consider because really, there are no drawbacks. It saves taxpayers money, it will improve the health of Albertans and it will make life more affordable.”

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