The future of Canada's health care at stake: Maude Barlow warns of privatization and high-cost drugs
Higher drug prices and privatized health care
Since then, Barlow has served as the United Nations key advisor on water issues. But the bread-and-butter of her activism is educating Canadians about the dangers of the increasing influence of multinational corporations over governments. And that issue, she said, goes hand-in-hand with privatization of public services such as medicare.
“If you take a huge chunk of the money out of public health care, something's going to (have to) fill the void,” she said. “They're going to have to cut corners – and start allowing and promoting privatization of some essential services.”
One issue that has received scant attention – in general, and certainly not at the premiers' meetings in Victoria – is free trade. Currently, Canada is in process of signing a trade agreement with Europe, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).
Still under the public radar in many ways, CETA will impact health care, Barlow said, by allowing European pharmaceutical companies to effectively override standards on the approval and patenting of medications. Under the agreement, she said, Europe's patent laws – which tend to favour drug companies and offer longer patents – must be applied in Canada as well. Barlow and other pharmaceutical advocates at the Victoria meetings warn that this would lead to higher drug costs and reduced standards to get drugs approved for market.
“That would increase our drug prices by about $3 billion a year,” Barlow said. “That immediately offsets any kind of cost-cutting you might want to do for health care.”
But CETA – alongside its regional counterpart, the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- risks having a more “insidious” effect, Barlow told VO.
“The longer-term, more insidious – though less obvious – effect is, as we allow more privatization of any public services, under CETA and also under NAFTA, corporations can claim the right to offer competitive services,” she said. “The more we allow privatization, the more American companies have the right to say, 'You know, this area is privatized so you can't keep us out.'
“CETA applies to not just the federal government but provincial and municipal governments -- hospital spending, schools, whatever. It is really the beginning of another way of letting corporations come in and challenge the exclusive monopoly for a social program, in this case health care.”
Barlow is buoyed by the premiers' newfound united front on federal involvement in health care, which is governed by the national Canada Health Act, even though provinces maintain responsibility for providing health care.
But it will take more people than just the premiers to push for better public health care.
“We have to find a very clear, simple way to say that to people so they can put pressure on their MLAs, their MPPs, their Members of Parliament,” she said.
Barlow's message may not have yet been heard widely in the media. But for her, the vision is also long-term – and her group is working towards making health care the primary election issue in 2015.
When VO asked her earlier this week what she will do if the premiers cannot succeed in reversing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision, Barlow simply smiled.
“We're not going to let him do it,” she said. “We're here to stand on guard for our health care system in this country.”