Free prescription medicines for those 24 and under first step to national pharmacare plan: Sousa

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Prescription medicines will be free for Ontario residents 24 and under starting in January as the provincial budget extends the same drug coverage given to 3.9 million seniors and people on social assistance.

The groundbreaking measure, the first of its kind in Canada, is called OHIP+ and comes at a $465-million annual cost to taxpayers.

There will be 4,400 medications, including expensive ones for cancer treatment, available to 4 million young Ontarians.

The new OHIP+ plan will double pharmacare coverage in the province.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa said Thursday the financial help is aimed at the growing number of parents who don’t have benefit plans, recent grads looking for their first big jobs, contract workers and others scrambling to make ends meet who are in precarious positions.

More on the 2017 Ontario budget

He described it as a step to a broader pharmacare plan for all citizens, which the province has been pressing the federal government and other provinces to support.

“What better place to start than the most vulnerable at a young age?” Sousa told reporters before delivering his budget speech.

“Getting prescriptions filled can be a challenge for families with children requiring medication, for young people just entering the workforce,” he added in the Legislature.

The cost of medications can cause “real hardships for some,” Sousa said, noting one in 10 Ontarians cannot afford their prescriptions.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, who has proposed a pharmacare program that would cover 125 basic medications for all ages under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, quickly called Sousa’s proposal a “half measure” that leaves millions of adults on their own.

“Nobody should go to a doctor, get a prescription and then leave that doctor’s office holding that prescription knowing that there’s no way they’re going to fill that,” she said.

Horwath defended the vastly lower number of drugs that would be covered under an NDP plan, which wouldn’t take effect until 2020. She said the 125 medications would be the most common prescriptions for the most common ailments.

“That’s where you get the biggest bang for the buck.”

Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said the NDP plan’s budget of $475 million is vastly underestimated and insisted the Liberal government’s child and youth pharmacare plan should apply a means test to exclude Ontarians who can afford their own drugs or have private plans.

“Of course, everyone wants greater drug coverage . . . . I want to make sure those precious taxpayer dollars are going to the people that really need it,” he added.

“You’ve got a millionaire family that has no problem with drug access and you’ve got kids that desperately need drug treatment that can’t get it . . . . That doesn’t seem right.”

The Ontario Health Coalition, Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and the Unifor labour union applauded the youth pharmacare program as a catalyst for national pharmacare.

“We’re pushing the country on this issue and it’s vital. How does it make sense that you can get your diagnosis publicly covered, but you can’t get your treatment publicly covered?” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition.

“What the NDP did last week and what the government has done this week is really make the dream of pharmacare in Canada one giant step closer to reality.”

Under the Liberal government plan, starting Jan. 1, parents, teens and young adults would simply present their OHIP cards with their prescriptions from a doctor and no cash will exchange hands at the pharmacy counter, officials said. There are no co-payments or deductibles.

The eligible drugs, listed on the Ministry of Health website under the Ontario Drug Benefit formulary, are for treating most acute conditions, common chronic conditions, childhood cancers and other diseases, according to budget documents.

Parents whose children have cancer, for example, and have had to rely on the Trillium catastrophic drug plan, will save thousands of dollars under OHIP+, given that the Trillium deductible requires them to pay 4 per cent of their gross income.

In addition, doctors can apply under the ministry’s “exceptional access program” to have other drugs they deem necessary covered by OHIP Plus, officials told the Toronto Star.

Otherwise, parents with drug plans of their own could cover prescription medications not available under the Ontario Drug Benefit plan.