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Some Alberta pharmacists feel fed’s pharmacare isn’t the answer

Some Alberta pharmacists have concerns about increased bureaucracy and wasted resources in new federal pharmacare plan
The Alberta Pharmacy Association joined the Government of Alberta in opposition to the federal Pharmacare announcement.

Danielle Smith and the UCP aren’t the only group in Alberta opposed to a newly-announced federal pharmacare program. The Alberta Pharmacists’ Association (RxA) came out in opposition to the program, asking for the funding to be transferred directly to the province instead.

Announced Feb. 29, Bill C-64, An Act respecting Pharmacare, was a joint effort between the federal Liberals and NDP, designed to provide universal, single-payer coverage for contraceptives and diabetes medications.

The UCP wasted little time expressing its disapproval of the program — Health Minister Adrianna LaGrange stated the province’s disapproval with the program on Feb. 25, five days before the bill was tabled. LaGrange walked back some of her initial comments during Question Period Feb. 29, but still asked for the financial share of the program to be handed over to the province.

The RxA waited a few more days, but added their voice to the conversation as soon as the bill was officially tabled.

“While Pharmacare discussions have been ongoing for years there has been little to no direct engagement with pharmacists,” read the statement. “Rather than introducing a federally administered Pharmacare plan, we advocate for funding to be directed to the provinces to align with existing programs and enhance access.”

Neil Cameron, a pharmacist in Athabasca, said the program felt hastily put together, blaming political pressure on the federal Liberal party to get the deal done in time.

“It’s not what the Canadian Pharmacist Association is recommending, but (the feds) are in crisis mode right now,” said Cameron. “The federal government should probably stick to something simpler that they do on a regular basis, like doing payroll. And we all know how that went.”

Cameron did acknowledge that there was a need for a similar program in the province, specifically for people who fall between the cracks of existing systems.

“There’s just huge concerns for the hastiness, and the real reasons this has come in as fast as it has,” said Cameron.

Alberta pharmacists agree fed’s program isn’t the answer

One perk the federal government touted for its proposal was the single-payer nature of the system. In other words, the feds would be the only entity dealing with insurance companies to provide coverage. Rita Lyster, a Barrhead-area pharmacist said an additional funding program would just add to the plethora of programs pharmacists already deal with, a sentiment echoed by the RxA.

Lyster recently set up a new pharmacy in the Town of Barrhead, and she said the list of programs is daunting. Among others, Lyster said she had to set up contracts with Alberta Blue Cross, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), Alberta Health Benefit, Express Scripts Canada, Assure, Claim Secure, Green Shield, Atlantic Blue Cross, and more.

“Currently pharmacies already deal with multiple payers,” wrote Lyster in a March 1 email. “We really don’t need one more!”

Currently, many Albertans are ‘under covered,’ meaning they have coverage, but it doesn’t cover all the costs. In its Feb. 29 news release, the federal government said one in four Canadians with diabetes have reported not following their treatment plans due to cost.

Lyster pointed to brittle diabetics — a rarer form of diabetes that causes frequent and severe blood sugar swings — as one demographic that isn’t fully covered by Alberta’s policies.

“The best test right now is the sensor that stays implanted and needs to be changed every ten days. (They cost) $115 from amazon,” wrote Lyster, who said a year’s worth of strips cost $4,140.

Alberta covers a maximum of $2,400 in eligible diabetes supplies in a given benefit year. Lyster said someone with brittle diabetes has to test their blood sugar six to eight times a day. If they opt for blood glucose strips — which involves pricking the tip of your finger to draw blood — they would need to use about 4,445 strips a year, which cost $75 for 100, or roughly $3,333 over the course of the year.

Not everyone opposed

Chris Gallaway, executive director of Friends of Medicare — a non-profit organization working to “protect and strengthen Alberta’s public healthcare” — said many of the critiques of the plan were unfounded.

“I would say the Pharmacists Association are outliers in the healthcare sector. Nurses and doctors and other healthcare workers have come out strongly in favour of why Pharmacare is needed,” said Gallaway in a March 1 interview.  “It’s kind of frustrating to see them take a self-serving stance on a deal that is still in the early stages.”

The non-profit also pushed back against some of the province’s early claims, calling a LaGrange statement that claimed all Albertans already have access to government-sponsored health benefit plans deliberately misleading.

“To claim that all Albertans have access to drug coverage because they can buy a benefit plan if they can afford one is intentionally misleading and beyond offensive,” said Gallaway in a Feb. 26 release. “This is not the same as all Albertans having universal access to afford the drugs they need through our public healthcare system and the Minister knows it.”

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