Walter Armstrong is a strong proponent of universal health care in Canada, which is why he was shocked to learn it could cost him about $250 to receive a dose of the new vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
“If I get this, it’s a death sentence,” the 73-year-old said of RSV, noting that he had tuberculosis as an infant, and he’s been diagnosed with an enlarged heart and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), in addition to having just 60 per cent breathing capacity in his left lung and just 80 per cent in his right lung.
RSV infection is a major cause of lower respiratory illness, particularly among infants, young children and older adults, according to Health Canada, and causes yearly outbreaks of respiratory tract disease, usually starting in late fall and running through to early spring.
Health Canada approved GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) Arexvy vaccine for RSV on Friday, Aug. 4, but in Ontario, the cost of the vaccine is only covered for those aged 60 and older who live in long-term care homes, elder care lodges, and some retirement homes.
Anyone who is 60 years of age or older and not eligible for the publicly funded vaccine, may still be able to receive a dose by speaking with their health-care provider, but they will likely need to pay for it out of pocket.
That’s not an option for Armstrong.
“I can’t afford it, not this month, not next month, not next year,” he said.
As a pensioner with an annual income of just $20,000 dealing with annual rental costs of $12,000, Armstrong thinks the cost should be covered for everyone, or at the very least "means tested," so those of lower incomes aren’t required to bear the burden.
Failing that he suspects the costs of hospitalizing those who fall ill with RSV will be far greater than the costs of providing the vaccine, invoking memories of the old saying: ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’
While visiting his family physician in late September for renewal of his medications, Armstrong asked the doctor for help accessing the vaccine and he’s also reached out to local MPP Caroline Mulroney. He’s even contacted the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion about making a presentation, but has yet to receive a response.
Armstrong is hoping to pressure the provincial government to change their approach or even to pressure the federal government to step in and take some action, but regardless of which level of government is willing to help, Armstrong just wants the problem resolved.
“I just find it so inherently, patently un-Canadian — we do not leave the poor and the sick to die,” he said.
Armstrong thinks it’s “morally repugnant” that multi-national pharmaceutical companies are being allowed to profit “on the backs of the poorest and weakest,” in direct contrast to the values he feels were promoted in the ’50s by then Saskatchewan premier, Tommy Douglas, who is widely considered as the father of Medicare.
“We were the envy of the whole democratic, English-speaking world,” the Bradford resident said.
Coincidentally, Armstrong said he came from England to Canada at age 12 in July of 1962, the same year in which Douglas’s successor Woodrow Lloyd, launched the universal health-care program in the province.
His connections to health care don’t end their though, as Armstrong said his mother served as a nurse during the Second World War, that he graduated from the Canadian Institute of Medical Technology and that he worked as a respiratory technologist at Toronto Western Hospital in the ’80s.
“I have a very strong sense of commitment to the medical community,” he said.
For now, Armstrong is being careful to wear a mask whenever he can and is hoping to begin a letter-writing campaign to convince the government to cover the cost of the RSV vaccine for every Canadian.
“I feel this is my moral obligation. I am going to do my best for my fellow Canadian citizens. This is the best country in the world and I’m lucky to be here,” he said.