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Poor access to medicines for more than a million Canadians is more than a health risk and an economic burden, it is a rights violation, argues Katrina Perehudoff, Nav Persaud and Lisa Forman in the June 2021 issue of Canadian Family Physician.

The core argument in this commentary is that human rights law is a tool that can help the Canadian pharmacare debate move forward. The crux of a human rights argument is that it frames the range of possible pharmacare solutions as duties of the government rather than acts of charity. Although the government of Canada cannot legally be compelled to enforce the right to health, one can look to other rights, such as to equality and life, for legal arguments to support pharmacare. Human rights considerations have shifted the social and political priorities in Canada’s national policy (eg, on housing) and foreign policy (eg, for sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health) so the same could happen for medicine access. 

Canada’s current pharmaceutical policy leaves up to 20% of Canadians (up to 7.5 million people) uninsured or underinsured, and paying for most of their prescription medicine costs out of pocket. In 2016, 1 million Canadians reported having to choose between purchasing food and heat or a needed prescription. A national pharmacare program that provides medically necessary prescription medicines is being promoted as a sound policy response to these inequalities.

This commentary is published in Canadian Family Physician.