Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says the national pharmacare committee assembled this week will preserve the best parts of Canada’s existing drug plans, rather than abandon them in pursuit of a new, country-wide universal program.

Speaking a day after tabling his third budget, Morneau said Wednesday that the new pharmacare advisory council will explore a strategy on how to close gaps in the current patchwork to ensure all Canadians have access to the medications they need.

“We need to consider how we can best make use of our existing system — which, after all, for most people in this room, is probably working — but recognize that there are very significant gaps that we need to deal with,” Morneau told the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa.

“We recognize that we need a strategy to deal with the fact that not everyone has access and we need to do it in a way that’s responsible, that deals with the gaps, but doesn’t throw out the system that we currently have.”

The advisory group, led by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, was officially announced in Morneau’s budget Tuesday. Hoskins will likely be supportive of maintaining exiting systems — he was behind the introduction of an Ontario pharmacare plan this year that covers 4,400 medications for people under 25.

His new committee will work with provinces, territories and Indigenous groups.

A national pharmacare plan is seen as a major undertaking with a hefty price tag. Last fall, the parliamentary budget watchdog warned it could cost $19 billion a year.

While on stage Wednesday, Morneau noted that Ottawa wants to proceed in fiscally responsible way. He made a point of saying he sees a very big difference between a national pharmacare “strategy” and a “plan.”

Following his appearance, he told a news conference that “there are parts of the system that are working well, there are parts of the system that really aren’t working well — we need to consider both those parts.”

Morneau’s comments that some of the existing systems could remain in place drew condemnation from the Canadian Health Coalition, which issued a news release Wednesday accusing the minister of backing away from a universal public drug plan.

“This is a cruel sleight-of-hand,” James Hutt, the group’s interim national director for policy and advocacy, said in a statement.

“Millions of Canadians have been waiting decades for life-saving medications and were ecstatic (with) the Liberals’ announcement yesterday. Now, today they clarify that the Liberals want only partial drug coverage — not for everyone.”

The coalition said Canada is the only country with a public health-care system that lacks a national public drug plan for everyone

Hoskins 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 and possibly expropriate a central plank of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s platform.

In Wednesday’s question period, New Democrat MP Peter Julian painted the new pharmacare strategy as yet another Liberal study: “If he wants to steal NDP ideas, steal them, put them into practice, don’t just stare at them — it’s weird.”

Earlier Wednesday, Morneau also defended his budget against complaints it didn’t do enough to shield Canada from shorter-term competitiveness threats linked to incoming U.S. tax reforms.

Morneau said the government will focus on more immediate worries like NAFTA and lower U.S. corporate taxes at the same time it takes steps to address longer-term domestic risks, such as the aging workforce.

Tuesday’s fiscal plan was packed with billions of dollars worth of new investments, including measures to increase the labour-force participation of women.

To pay for it all, the Liberal government used up roughly $20 billion of additional fiscal room over the coming years that came from economic improvements, reprofiled infrastructure commitments and lower-than-expected departmental spending.

“We need to play a long game and we need to play a short game — and that’s what we’re trying to do and happily our economy is in a position where we have the ability to do that,” Morneau said.

He later reiterated that his department is still doing its homework on impending U.S. tax reforms that business leaders have warned could damage to the Canadian economy.

Tuesday’s budget showed the Liberal government is still predicting billions of dollars in annual deficits over the coming years — starting with a shortfall of $18.1 billion for 2018-19 and no timeline to return to balance.

Morneau is focused on another fiscal “anchor” of lowering the net debt-to-GDP ratio, which is a measure of Ottawa’s debt burden. The budget predicts the ratio to decline each year over the outlook.

The Liberals came under attack Wednesday for failing to outline a timetable to eliminate the shortfalls despite its improved fiscal position.

“There’s no question the prime minister has inherited great fortune,” Pierre Poilievre said in the House of Commons in reference to the stronger economic conditions.

“This government is blowing every penny of it.”