Drug Costs Will Soar
February 25, 2008
Bound by its promises, the Sask Party government seems on course to spend more tax dollars on drugs than their NDP predecessors. Adding Avastin to the formulary was one expensive promise-a $4 million annual tab by which 80 cancer patients a year will, at best, live a few months longer. However, the decision to extend the $15 drug cap to children under 15 will also prove pricey.
In opposition, the Sask Party chided the NDP for not covering Avastin; but, ironically, it also railed against the seniors' drug cap. While addressing the legislature on April 2 last year, Brad Wall cited Star-Phoenix columnist Randy Burton, who wrote, "The seniors' drug plan is by far the most blatantly political move in the budget, given that any sense of fiscal responsibility is almost totally absent from this initiative."
Wall added that his favorite quote came from a senior he met in Tisdale: "Do those guys in Regina think seniors are stupid We learned years ago you don't get something for nothing."
This wisdom was forgotten at election time, as the Sask Party promised to keep the cap for all seniors making less than $64,043, and extend it to children under 15. Janice MacKinnon, former NDP finance minister, famously bashed all versions of "pharmacare." She said that existing drug plans were sufficient, and an extra $50 million for health could be spent in better ways.
Indeed, under the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and the Saskatchewan Income Plan (SIP), seniors paid just 35 percent of prescription costs (following a semi-annual deductible of $200 for GIS or $100 for SIP). Children in households on social assistance paid nothing for drugs because of the Family Health Benefits Program. Parents and guardians in these homes had the same help for drugs as those receiving the SIP. And everyone in Saskatchewan could have some portion of their drugs subsidized by the province if the cost was more than just 3.4 percent of personal income.
By contrast, the $15 cap is unrelated to income, discourages personal responsibility for costs and leaves room for abuse. It is rumoured that some doctors now prescribe larger prescriptions so that seniors pay less (and taxpayers more). Others use the closest pharmacy, higher price or not, since the government pays the difference.
Recently the Sask Party extended this cap to those under 15 and made no exceptions for families of high income. The reason, according to Health Minister Don McMorris, was that since only 60,000 children would be affected, it wasn't worth it to income-test. Columnist Murray Mandryk shot holes through that claim, since Statistics Canada says our province has 190,000 children under 14. Subtract 51,000 aboriginal children covered by the federal government, and 26,000 children helped in programs cited above, and that still leaves 113,000.
Furthermore, the government has also botched the plan for seniors. To eliminate just 7,500 high-income seniors from the drug cap, the province will now force all 150,000 other seniors to apply for the program-one they had already used since last June. It would have been better to keep seniors under the program by default and claw back prescription costs from those with high-incomes at tax time.
The future looks worse. Seniors' drug costs are expected to rise by double-digit percentages each year. Besides, the oldest baby boomers will turn 65 in 2012; and by 2026, almost one quarter of the population will be seniors. Let's hope in the 2011 provincial campaign, someone will offer a different plan that doesn't break the bank.