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I was wondering why this sentence works with the present perfect.

We haven't had a way to pay for any drugs in the past, but now we do.

Present perfect refers to a time interval which continues up to now. But in this sentence in question, the time interval doesn't seem to continue up to now. Instead, it seems to continue to some unspecified point in the past when we began to have a way to pay for drugs.

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It's marginally acceptable. For the reasons you state, the preterite would make more sense.

The only reason that comes to mind is if this is the exact moment when they transition from not having had a way to having one. Compare someone opening a gift:

A food processor! I haven't had a way to make smoothies, but now I do.

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  • 1
    +1 Or when walking into a shopping mall: "Oh! I've never been here!" So I think it's a question of interpretation of the original sentence. The perfect is indeed probably preferable if "in the past" means "up till now(ish)" - reimagine the sentence with with a definite time span: "We haven't had a way to pay for drugs for the last five years, but now we do."
    – cruthers
    yesterday
  • Does this sentence work: Mary has never been to that library in the past, but now she does. "now she does" doesn't refer to the moment of speaking, but the extended sense of "present". It could be a week, a month, a year, or even a decade.
    – Stephen
    yesterday
  • @Stephen, doesn't work. The word "does" doesn't fit. So you'd have to say, "Mary has never been to that library in the past, but she's there now" (or something like that). So it only really works, I think, for something that's happening in the present moment. Otherwise, you could say, "Mary had never been to that library in the past, but now she has been." This would work if either (1) Mary is at the library now or (2) she has left the library, but made the referenced first visit sometime that's relatively recent for purposes of the discussion.
    – cruthers
    yesterday
  • @cruthers: Exactly; that library example shows why in theory the past perfect ought to be used, and that the problem arises here due to the common mistakes that even many native speakers make when the verb is "have" and the technically correct conjugation is "had had", as I stated in my answer.
    – user21820
    22 hours ago
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You are right, as "but now we do" implies that there is such a point in the past. Use of the present perfect suggests that the change occurred in the 'present' in an extended sense of that word; it includes the recent past. How recent depends on context; it could be 5 minutes if the speaker has just enabled a feature on a computer-linked account, or it might be a month (or more) if a regular order for supplies now includes an order for drugs.

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In theory, the correct version would say:

We hadn't had a way to pay for any drugs in the past, [...]

This is the past perfect, but it is so rarely used that even native speakers sometimes have trouble with it especially when the verb involved is "have", whose past perfect is "had had". Some joke-sentences are based on this:

"Okay," said the Bellman, whose head was in danger of falling apart like a chocolate orange, "let me get this straight: David Copperfield, unlike Pilgrim’s Progress, which had had 'had', had had 'had had'. Had 'had had' had [Text Grand Central]’s approval?" − The Well of Lost Plots

The simplest solution to evade confusion is to use the simple past, namely "had", whose negation is "did not have" as in:

We didn't have a way to pay for any drugs in the past, [...]

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One of the uses of the present perfect is to show something in the past, but not referring to WHEN specifically in the past:

We haven't had a way to pay for any drugs in the past, but now we do.

As I speak now, I have not had a way to pay for any drugs in the past. But I am not saying when in the past. This is just true about the "general" past now.

Compare:

We didn't have a way to pay for any drugs in the past, now we do.

Last year, two weeks ago, five years ago, etc. The actual time of when this was true does not in fact require mentioning.

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