Mr. Speaker, it is an absolute pleasure to split my time with the member for Mégantic—L'Érable, my seatmate and a well-informed member on this topic.
I think members from all parties can agree that we want Canadians to receive the best possible health care. However, universal or national pharmacare would have serious implications for all Canadians, without changing the status quo for most. According to a 2017 report by The Conference Board of Canada, 98% of Canadians either have or are eligible for private or public drug coverage, so we know that the vast majority of Canadians can access the medications they need without financial burden.
If we implemented a universal pharmacare program, this would not be the case. To pay for a universal system, taxes would have to be raised for all Canadians. We do not know how much that could cost, but estimates are around $15 billion annually. Under a universal system, the most vulnerable Canadians would see their cost of living go up due to higher taxes.
Canadians who currently have the coverage they need would give up some of their disposable income to fund the new system, while seeing no change to their quality of life or access to prescription medication. One thing I consistently hear from my constituents is that they cannot afford more taxes. They cannot afford higher living costs. Things are stretched tight as it is.
The government needs to be mindful of the economic times we are in. Oil prices are in free fall, COVID-19 is predicted to have significant impacts on our economy, rail blockades caused millions of dollars in lost economic development and companies are rethinking investing in Canada because of our “political climate”. Just yesterday, the TSX fell by almost 700 points, and we are now in what is called a bear market.
We are in uncertain times. Some have even called it uncharted territory. Right now, many Canadians are worried about their jobs and livelihoods. Now is not the time to implement a pharmacare program that would come at a massive cost on the backs of taxpayers. I am especially worried because of the huge deficit we already have, which is close to $30 billion. In December of last year, finance department documents showed it was at $26.6 billion and expected to keep rising. We will find out more when the finance minister releases his budget on March 30, the date we finally learned just yesterday.
We have this huge deficit, and I am still scratching my head and wondering why. We have been in relatively good economic times for the past few years. Canada was in good shape until 2015 thanks to the previous Conservative government that had the restraint to save and make tough decisions. The government has squandered that good fortune. Instead, it has gone on a spending spree and racked up unsustainable levels of debt and will leave the bill to our children and grandchildren.
Most economists know that one saves money in the good times and puts money away for a rainy day, as the saying goes. That did not happen, and now we are heading into a series of stormy days. The government cannot give any sort of clear answer on how it is going to respond to a recession. My guess is that it has no idea.
This is a crucial time for Canada. Companies no longer see Canada as a place to make a safe investment. The government has actively worked to shut down the energy industry with legislation like Bill C-69 and Bill C-48. Thousands of hard-working men and women are finding themselves out of work in my home province of Alberta, and this has had a ripple effect on the entire economy. What does all this have to do with pharmacare? As I said earlier, Canadians cannot afford higher taxes, especially in these uncertain economic times.
In last year's budget, the government pledged to work with provinces, territories and stakeholders to create the Canadian drug agency and to spend $35 million to establish a Canadian drug agency transition office. The government's advisory group was headed by a former provincial Liberal, Dr. Eric Hoskins, a man who is no stranger to endless deficits and debt. It is no surprise that the report he authored recommended the creation of a universal system. It is always buy now, pay later.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has warned the government of the impact on workers should pharmacare be implemented. Its chief economist, Trevin Stratton, said millions of Canadians would lose access to medications they have under the current plans. He said the government needs to “carefully reflect” on how millions of Canadians who already have access to prescription drug coverage would be impacted.
Some families experienced this recently when the Ontario government implemented free prescription medication for people under the age of 25. This program, OHIP+, cost roughly $500 million a year when it was implemented in 2017. Private insurance for those under the age of 25 became obsolete. Many parents complained that medications for rare diseases were not on the list of approved medications under OHIP+. These medications had been covered under private insurance.
I worry that the same thing will happen with this government when it implements a universal pharmacare system across the country. The prescription medication that many people are currently using and covering the cost of through their private insurance may become unavailable if not approved.
Not only will a universal system put more strain on Canadians through higher taxes and deficit, but access to much-needed prescription drugs may be threatened. The Liberals have been promising a pharmacare plan for decades and have done absolutely nothing about it. It was in their 1997 election platform and was promised again in 2004. Any promises to implement pharmacare are purely for political posturing. In fact, their 2019 budget contained almost no health care money until 2022, well after the election.
We on this side of the House know that one of the best things we can do to help Canadians is keep taxes and the cost of living low. Fiscal restraint is required to ensure the prosperity of our future generations. We need to make good decisions now, and I do not believe adopting a universal pharmacare program is a smart decision. As I stated, it would have serious financial impacts through higher taxes and bigger deficits. It would threaten access to medications currently covered through private drug plans. Research shows that about 98% of Canadians already have or are eligible for private or public drug coverage.
While we know that some Canadians legitimately struggle to pay for access to prescription medications, this is not the case for the majority of our population. We already have one of the best health care systems in the world, and we should be proud of the system in place.
Instead of focusing on big-ticket items like national pharmacare, the government needs to focus on the unfolding economic crisis. We need urgent action to unleash our economy. Budget 2020 must include cuts for workers and entrepreneurs to reward investment and work, a reasonable plan to phase out the deficit and reassure investors, a rule to eliminate red tape and liberate businesses, an end to corporate welfare for favoured companies and an end to the wasteful Liberal spending that we have seen over the past four years.
We are all in the House to help our constituents and all Canadians. We want to see them be successful and get ahead. Implementing an expensive pharmacare system will not achieve this. It will put more tax burdens on hard-working Canadians and it is not needed by the vast majority of our population. These uncertain economic times are not suitable for introducing a $15-billion pharmacare plan.