Opinion: Alberta’s knee-jerk reaction to pharmacare puts its residents at a disadvantage

Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange isn’t totally wrong when she says the national pharmacare deal is a politically motivated plan to keep the supply-and-confidence agreement alive, and stave off the threat of a federal election unwanted by both the NDP and the low-in-the-polls Liberals.

Ottawa is encroaching on Alberta’s authority to deliver health care services, as she said – an area that is primarily a provincial responsibility. And true to form, Alberta and Quebec were the first out of the gate in saying there would be no participation in a program that’s expected to soon cover the costs of diabetes and birth-control medications for everyone.

“I really feel that the federal government needs to partner with the provinces, not just with their federal NDP counterparts,” Ms. LaGrange said to reporters regarding Alberta’s position that it will not participate in the program but will take the money.

But even with politics at play, and legitimate jurisdictional questions to be asked, a decision that would leave Albertans at a serious disadvantage to counterparts in other provinces is bad policy and bad politics.

That is especially true when it comes to contraception – which, it’s no understatement to say, is crucial to a woman’s right to control her own reproductive health, benefits individuals and families, and saves the health care system much bigger costs. Whether they think about it or not, most people benefit from contraception at some point or another.

Wide access to contraception is about as uncontroversial as you can get, with acceptance and support found across party lines. Conservatives beyond Alberta, including in Pierre Poilievre’s Conservative Party, should take note that there will be a political risk to opposing any type of universal coverage.

There are still questions about the wisdom of a larger-scale pharmacare plan, given the costs. The NDP insists this near-immediate coverage for diabetes and contraception is the foundation for a more expansive plan. But it’s better that this mini-pharmacare program be considered a narrow test, costing Ottawa somewhere around $1-billion, rather than multiples of that.

However, Alberta – without knowing details of the legislation coming this week – has acted in what has become a predictable knee-jerk fashion. Former premier Jason Kenney used to at least sometimes say “we’ll see” when presented with objectionable schemes from Ottawa. But this United Conservative Party government issued its response on the weekend, well before any details were known.

In describing what Ms. LaGrange calls the province’s already robust program for helping people with their meds, her office said more than a million (in a province of 4.8 million) Albertans are covered by government plans. Her office estimates 76 per cent of Albertans have some form of drug coverage, through government or private providers.

That still leaves many without any coverage. And while vasectomies are covered in many provinces, including Alberta, contraceptives – usually paid for by women – are not. Many women want to have children. But most do not want the number of children and timing of their births left to chance.

Calgary physician Rupinder Toor has become one of the country’s leading voices for free birth control. She said it deserves special consideration because it’s the realm where medication and human rights overlap. It’s also a policy that focuses on prevention. Currently in Canada, she said, about 40 per cent of unintended pregnancies end in abortion.

Dr. Toor said this week it’s heartbreaking that the patients she has been advocating for could end up left out of the program while most of the rest of Canada has access. “Albertans just want what every other Canadian is getting,” she said.

Even the Calgary and Edmonton Chambers of Commerce have said Alberta should at least hear Ottawa out on the matter, and that a national pharmacare program could benefit the economy.

Taking a position in favour of universal contraception could benefit Danielle Smith’s government in maintaining its current mainstream political appeal. As unlikely as this is to happen, the UCP could use a strong example of not being led by the nose by social conservatives, namely Take Back Alberta leader David Parker.

The Alberta Premier appears to be taking her cues from the group on everything from health care to the sexual education taught in schools. Ms. Smith attempted this week to distance herself, somewhat, from Mr. Parker – more specifically his deeply personal social media attacks, including accusations about Mr. Poilievre’s wife and inner circle. She said she has told him to delete his X account and “get some help.”

The Premier also said that nobody, including Mr. Parker, tells her what to do. Doing something as wildly out-of-character as embracing federally funded universal contraception for the benefit of Albertans could show that.

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