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'Not consulted': Alberta health minister questions Ottawa's national pharmacare plan

EDMONTON — Alberta's health minister is questioning the need for a national pharmacare plan, saying the province already has a comprehensive program for seniors, as well as for those who have low incomes and receive disability benefits.
Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange makes an announcement in Calgary on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

EDMONTON — Alberta's health minister is questioning the need for a national pharmacare plan, saying the province already has a comprehensive program for seniors, as well as for those who have low incomes and receive disability benefits. 

The federal NDP said last week it had reached a deal on pharmacare with the Liberal government that would allow every Canadian with a health card to access free diabetes medication and birth control. 

"I have to wonder is this actually universal health care, when in fact they're just providing in two specific areas … diabetes and birth control? My understanding of pharmacare and universal health care (is it) encompasses all medications," Health Minister Adriana LaGrange told a news conference Tuesday. 

"We were not consulted about the federal government’s plan and, although information available to us is limited, we have concerns about the proposed limited scope." 

The coverage is to be included in the first piece of a national pharmacare program — a key pillar of the supply-and-confidence agreement between the federal NDP and Liberals — with legislation expected to be introduced in the House of Commons this week. 

LaGrange said Alberta intends to opt out of the program, but it wants to receive its per-capita share. 

"The province is willing to work and discuss ways that the federal government can invest in Alberta’s pharmacare program to enhance the existing program that is comprehensive and currently available to Albertans," LaGrange said. 

"We would be absolutely willing to enhance those programs. All we need is the federal government to provide those dollars to us, and we will make sure we will enhance the programs," LaGrange said. 

She added the Alberta government already sponsors drug plans that provide coverage for more than 5,000 Health Canada-approved drugs, including ones to treat diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and other respiratory diseases. 

"We do have a very robust pharmacare program here in Alberta." 

The federal health minister confirmed to reporters Tuesday that the legislation is to be introduced this week but said it's a bit too soon for reaction. 

"Some people are jumping the gun and are talking about what that is before it's completed, and that's creating some confusion. So the first thing I would say is, 'Everybody just needs to take a pause,'" Mark Holland said. 

"For provinces to say whether or not they're going to participate in something or not, when they don't even know what it is, is a little premature." 

Holland said he would have liked an opportunity to talk to his provincial and territorial counterparts before news came out about the proposed deal. 

"I'm going to be (talking to them) over the next coming days in advance of tabling legislation so they can understand what our intention is," he said. 

"Those conversations at an official level are starting, but I want to have direct conversations with my counterparts. There's some premature reaction at this point." 

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters Monday he believes provinces that are planning to opt out will eventually opt in. 

"I think it will be very difficult for the premier in Alberta to explain to people in Alberta who can’t afford their diabetes medication why they’re turning down an investment that would cover everyone in that province for their insulin and for their medical devices necessary for diabetes," he said. 

The chambers of commerce in Calgary and Edmonton are urging the province not to be too hasty in opting out of the plan.

"Given the persistent labour shortage in Alberta, we need every advantage to remain a magnet for talent,” said Deborah Yedlin, president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. 

"Ensuring Alberta is an attractive place for people to move remains critical for the success of businesses, and we cannot limit our ability to attract and retain the labour force we need."

A group representing doctors in Edmonton said it was initially thrilled to hear about the federal pharmacare deal, but that turned to outrage when the Alberta government said it would opt out. 

"Albertans must receive the same coverage for free birth control as the rest of Canada," the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association said in a release Tuesday. 

"It is absurd to play politics with the health of our patients and deny Albertans this groundbreaking program." 

The association said the cost of contraception remains prohibitive for many Albertans and that existing provincial programs are not sufficient. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2024. 

— By Bill Graveland in Calgary, with files from Mickey Djuric in Ottawa 

The Canadian Press