Notley calls UCP plan ‘cruel’ to change drug benefits for seniors

EDMONTON—Alberta opposition says drug plan benefit changes affecting 60,000 people are not only ruthless, but could lead to higher long-term health spending.

NDP leader Rachel Notley is urging Prime Minister Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government to reconsider its plan to end benefits for spouses and dependents of elderly people under the Senior Drug Benefits Scheme.

“This is a cruel decision with serious health impacts for nursing homes,” Notley said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Right now, Albertans age 65 and older and their spouses and dependents, regardless of age, get help with the cost of their prescription drugs.

The program began in 1972, but the government says it is an outlier and no other province covers such benefits under drug plans for seniors.

Alberta, citing cost as well as equity, will end the spousal and dependent subsidy on March 1. The government notes that 46,000 Albertans under the age of 65 have applied for and are receiving a benefit that is denied to nearly four million Albertans of the same age. .

About 14,000 Albertans eligible for the benefit are not using it.

The program costs $600 million a year and has been growing at eight percent a year. The change will save an estimated $36 million a year.

Those who have dropped coverage will continue to receive benefits under the Alberta Blue Cross Non-Group program at a cost of $63.50 per month, or less if they qualify for low-income subsidies.

Notley and senior advocate Frederick Brick said that for families on fixed, limited incomes, that small monthly amount is a big expense and they didn’t plan for it when they drew up their retirement plans.

“At some point they are forced to make a decision: ‘Can I get the medications that I need and my family needs or do I feed my family, (or) do I take care of putting a roof over their heads?’” Brick said with the National Association of Retirees Feds, who shared the podium with Notley at the press conference.

Both said the $36 million is a bogus savings because people who can’t afford their drugs will get sicker. That could mean a higher potential for being hospitalized or requiring assisted living or long-term care.

“This is a very short-sighted approach,” Brick said. “The reality is that we face bigger problems and higher costs.”

The province is also exploring whether there should be income tests for affluent seniors to see if they should contribute to the drug benefit plan.

While no decisions have been made, Notley said income tests don’t work in health care because of the wide variables involved: Pharmaceuticals can increase in cost, or a healthy person can suddenly develop major medical problems that they require thousands of dollars worth of medication.

“Illness doesn’t look at your bank account. And costs can appear out of nowhere.”

Health spokesman Steve Buick, in a statement, responded: “We find it interesting that Ms. Notley is now arguing that billionaires need taxpayers to fully cover their prescription drugs under the senior drug plan.”

The change is part of a broader plan by the Ministry of Health to reduce costs and maintain quality of care. Alberta is spending $20.6 billion on health this year, equal to more than 40 percent of the operating budget.

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