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Pills or bills?

Just about everyone has faced a form of sticker shock at the pharmacy counter. You’ve been prescribed a medication to treat whatever it is that ails you. But then you see how much of your hard-earned money you have to fork over to the pharmacist, and a small part of you wonders if it’s worth it. After all, you have lots of other bills that need to be covered as well.

Unfortunately, this is a reality faced by many in our society. A 2013 study by the C.D. Howe Institute found that as many as one in 10 Canadians, or about 3 million people, cannot afford their prescriptions. And in many cases, this could mean a matter of living a healthy life or a life filled with hospital visits and poor health, whether it be a senior on a fixed income or someone working a job that doesn’t provide enough extra money to cover that added expense.

And looking at Ontario specifically, the numbers reach even higher, with a 2015 Angus Reid study finding that as many as one in four Ontario residents either lower their dosage or skip filling prescriptions altogether because of the cost.

And according to that same C.D. Howe report, this leads to growing costs elsewhere in the healthcare system.

That’s why it is encouraging to see the prospect of a new pharmacare system come to the political forefront. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath announced Monday that, as part of the party’s 2018 election platform, it would be championing such a program. Under this proposal, the program would see 125 essential medicines paid for by the government by 2020.

Now the program wouldn’t come cheap – a little under half a billion dollars per year. And understandably, many would be wary of an NDP government. After all, the days of Premier Bob Rae weren’t that long ago.

However, such a plan, no matter what party implements it, would likely see economic benefits down the line. Fewer dollars would be spent in healthcare as those patients that could not afford to buy their much-needed prescriptions now can, insurance companies wouldn’t have to cover as many medications and could bring rates down, and people who may not be able to work because of an illness they cannot afford to treat can return to their jobs.

At the end of the day, someone shouldn’t be forced to make a choice between buying much-needed prescriptions and paying their bills. And a well managed, well watched pharmacare program could be the answer to that problem. At the very least, it’s worth a discussion.