Drug plan just what the doctor ordered

If you liked Justin Trudeau’s promises to make pot legal in the 2015 election, wait until you see the free-drugs pledge in the 2019 campaign.

Eric Hoskins, Ontario’s former health minister, has handed Trudeau and his Liberal team an unexpected flourish of ambition to insert into this fall’s election platform — a national, universal pharmacare program.

It’s been a while since Canadian politics delved into national universal social programs — daycare was the last big one on the political agenda, and that died in the 2006 election that brought Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to power.

Hoskins, who has been heading up a federal advisory council on pharmacare for the past year, even supplied some of the script for lofty speeches on the Liberal campaign trail this fall.

“This is our generation’s national project,” Hoskins said when he unveiled the council’s recommendations. “Let’s complete the unfinished business of universal health care.”

Trudeau is clearly warm to the idea, which is also going to be a central part of the New Democrats’ election platform.

Within hours after the Hoskins report was unveiled, the prime minister was standing in the Commons saying he accepted the findings, while also talking up national pharmacare on his Twitter feed.

“Universal health care should mean you don’t have to choose between medicine you need & putting food on the table,” Trudeau said in a tweet. “We’re committed to national pharmacare as part of a plan to strengthen medicare.”

This expansive, universal view of pharmacare is at odds with the more modest frame that many had expected from this Liberal government — one that has learned the hard way about making bold promises, especially those that involve provincial co-operation.

(See this year’s escalating federal-provincial battles over resources, pipelines and the carbon levy.)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau had been telegraphing a limited view of pharmacare even before the Hoskins study got underway, saying that perhaps the best the federal government could do was fill in the gaps for people whose drug-prescription costs are not covered by private insurance.

While Hoskins has laid out the case for a pan-Canadian program, it won’t be imposed on any province (like, say, a carbon levy).

“As with medicare, it will be up to individual provinces and territories to opt in to national pharmacare by agreeing to the national standards and funding parameters of pharmacare,” the report suggests.

Make no mistake — this large idea, coming soon to a Liberal election platform near you, signals a big change in the thinking of Trudeau and his team.

Back in 2015, a senior Trudeau adviser told me “there are no votes” in pharmacare. Trudeau himself said in 2015 that he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about universal programs, preferring targeted delivery to those most in need.

But Trudeau is obviously looking for ways to reassert the Liberals as a party of bold, progressive change, even or especially after learning on the job how big dreams clash with practical reality.

Electoral reform didn’t quite work out as planned. Neither did the vow on modest deficits, carbon taxation or harmony with the provinces. Cannabis legalization, though — that 2015 promise worked out, pretty smoothly, even.

Who knows? That might have been the inspiration to think bigger on pharmacare. Once you’ve made recreational drugs legal, why not make prescription drugs cheap and available?

We’re being treated this week to a preview of a key Liberal campaign plank, delivered, like medication, under doctor’s orders.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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