By Jamie Komarnicki, Calgary HeraldA seniors group hailed as a victory Health Minister Fred Horne’s announcement the province is backing away from income-based testing in its new drug plan, but questioned why the Tory government attempted to push through the changes in the first place.
On the eve of a new provincial budget, Horne said Wednesday the provincial government will forge ahead with plans to consolidate 18 different programs into a uniform system, but dump the most controversial part of the strategy that would see coverage based on family income.
Horne said the government now hopes to make up savings through lowered administrative costs and improved generic drug prices, while also working with the federal government on a plan for better pharmaceutical bulk buying among the provinces.
The retreat came following months of pressure from seniors concerned the changes unfairly targeted vulnerable residents with the highest medical needs.
“While we’re pleased that the government has reversed its decision on this, it’s unfortunate that it took this amount of time and pressure for the government to actually listen to the concerns of seniors,” said Bill Moore-Kilgannon, executive director of Public Interest Alberta.
“The way in which they brought out the proposal this time last year with their budget without any consultation and reversing what they had previously promised during the election really made so many seniors organizations very angry.”
The group’s seniors task force staged a high-profile sit-in at Horne’s constituency office earlier this year, demanding a meeting with the minister and Premier Alison Redford about the new pharmacare plan.
Under the current drug plan, most seniors pay 30 per cent of the cost of each prescription, to a maximum of $25, regardless of income.
The province made the surprise announcement of its new income-based strategy when it released last year’s budget in March 2013.
At the time, the government said it expected to save about $180 million a year through the changes. Meanwhile, the program was also meant to ensure coverage for the 20 per cent of Albertans who didn’t have any plans. It was first set to be implemented Jan. 1, but last fall Horne said the date would be delayed to allow for more consultation.
The Redford government is set to release the province’s 2014-15 budget Thursday.
On Wednesday, Horne said the province took into account the feedback from the seniors’ groups when it decided to change course on income-based testing.
“Seniors and others are paying property taxes, they’re paying utility costs, they’re coping with higher inflation in Alberta than in other parts of the country,” Horne said in an interview.
“People really wanted us to focus on what kind of administrative savings could we get and really continuing to work on those prices.”
The health minister said the province saved about $80 million last year through changes to generic drug pricing but more work needs to be done reining in prescription drug costs, a major cost driver in the health-care system.
Horne added Alberta will “continue to push the federal government to work with provinces and territories to have a national catastrophic drug program for Canadians. Because that’s really a core part of the issue — we’re not working together as much as we need to, to buy in bulk and pool our needs and our resources together and provide a higher level of coverage to everyone.”
Liberal MLA David Swann called it a good sign Horne walked away from income-based testing in the face of considerable outrage from seniors.
“I’m glad to hear he’s open to suggestions and getting an earful from a lot of us about how to make it more accessible and affordable,” Swann said.
“He has no justification for going after these most vulnerable people.”
Moore-Kilgannon said any new system needs to consider the role that prescription drugs plays in the overall health-care system “and take a universal approach to it.”
“We hope going forward on these upcoming changes, they have a real consultation that will involve looking at the pros and cons of what the changes will bring,” he said.