Morneau 'agnostic' on pharmacare study findings, other than increasing access - InfoNews

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Morneau 'agnostic' on pharmacare study findings, other than increasing access

Finance Minister Bill Morneau rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
March 02, 2018 - 12:19 PM

OTTAWA - Finance Minister Bill Morneau insists he's only concerned with improving Canadians' access to prescription drugs as he faces accusations of being in a "perceived conflict of interest" with a newly created council dedicated to exploring national pharmacare.

Critics have seized on a remark Morneau made in recent days about his past ties to his family-built human resources firm Morneau Shepell, which he noted is the largest benefits consultancy provider in the country.

They've said his connections to Morneau Shepell could mean he's not approaching a significant change in drug coverage in Canada with an exclusive focus on evidence and the public's interest.

Speaking Friday in Montreal, Morneau said all that matters to him is having the experts come up with ways to ensure Canadians obtain the medications they need.

"I am agnostic on the conclusions other than making sure that we get Canadians to a position where everyone has access to health care that's going to make sure that themselves and their families are able to be healthy," he said after promoting the federal budget at an event hosted by the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

"That is our goal. We have enlisted experts to help us with that goal. We'll do this and we'll get to the right conclusion for Canadians."

Earlier in the week, health and labour leaders wrote a letter urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to pull Morneau from the national pharmacare file over comments he made the morning after his budget announced the council's formation.

In the letter, the groups also alleged Morneau presupposed the outcome of the council's work by saying he supports an eventual strategy that would preserve existing drug-insurance systems in Canada, rather than abandoning the current patchwork altogether for a new national plan.

"Minister Morneau's comments contradict the overwhelming evidence and threaten to undermine the work of the (advisory council) before it even begins," reads the letter, signed by leaders of the Canadian Labour Congress, Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and Canadian Doctors for Medicare.

Morneau defended himself Friday by insisting Ottawa has absolutely not come to any conclusions on what national pharmacare could look like.

"It's quite clear that there's a big gap right now, that Canadians are not getting access to the medications that they need," he said.

"That is exactly why we've appointed an expert advisory council to consider how we can make sure that we get at this challenge."

The New Democrats have also targeted Morneau and are urging him to recuse himself.

"This week we all saw what could be the fastest-ever Liberal broken promise — the government has clarified it will actually now just study, not implement, pharmacare, and any future program will not be universal, public or free," NDP MP Kennedy Stewart said Friday during question period.

"Now the finance minister is facing conflict-of-interest allegations on his fake pharmacare proposal because of his link with Morneau Shepell."

On Wednesday, Morneau made a point of saying he sees a very big difference between a national pharmacare "strategy" and a "plan."

A national pharmacare plan is viewed as a major undertaking with a big cost. Last fall, an analysis by the parliamentary budget officer estimated it could cost $19 billion a year.

Morneau has insisted Ottawa wants to proceed in fiscally responsible way.

The advisory council is being led by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, who resigned from his post in the provincial legislature the day before the federal budget. Hoskins was behind the creation of an Ontario pharmacare plan this year that covers 4,400 medications for people under 25.

He has until the spring of next year to deliver his final report, setting the stage for the Liberals to make pharmacare a centrepiece of the party's 2019 election campaign.

Morneau's past ties to the company he built with his father, Morneau Shepell, led to intense criticism last fall.

At first, opposition rivals attacked him for failing to put his substantial holdings in the firm, which manages pensions, into a blind trust after he was named to a cabinet position responsible for regulating the industry.

He later faced conflict-of-interest allegations over a pension reform bill that he spearheaded despite his connection to the firm — allegations that eventually prompted Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to call for his resignation. The issue remains under formal review by the federal ethics commissioner.

"All of this conduct shows horrendous judgment," said Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre, the Tories' parliamentary finance critic.

"On the pharmacare issue, so far what we have is a council headed by a Kathleen Wynne minister. (Ontario Premier) Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals have wrecked Ontario, Canadians don't want her team in charge of their medicine."

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2018
The Canadian Press

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