TORONTO – Ontario’s wealthy seniors will pay more for prescriptions handled through the provincial drug plan under changes proposed Tuesday in the budget.

The Liberals want to change the Ontario Drug Benefit program so that about five per cent of seniors – those with the highest incomes – pick up more of the tab.

“I’ve heard repeatedly from people around the province, particularly people of better means, that in this era, we don’t really need to be paying the full drug cost for people who are very wealthy,” Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said in tabling his austerity budget.

Under the plan, about 75,000 seniors will pay an average of $665 a year more toward their prescription drugs covered under the plan.

The changes will take effect August 2014, although seniors living in long-term care homes or receiving publicly funded home care will not be affected by the changes.

Ontario, saddled with a $15.3-billion deficit this year, intends to put the books back into balance in five years through various austerity measures and revenue growth.

That includes limiting health-care spending increases to 2.1 per cent annually over the next three years – below the 2.5 per cent recommended by economist Don Drummond in his government-commissioned austerity report.

Under the drug plan, single seniors with an income over $100,000 will pay a deductible of $100 plus three per cent of their income. For couples with an income above $160,000, the deductible will be $200 per couple plus three per cent of the family income.

Those seniors will continue to pay a co-payment of $6.11 per prescription after the deductible amount.

The changes will not increase drug costs for seniors with net incomes below the $100,000 or $160,000 thresholds who already get drug benefits.

“The fairness of the program will be improved by asking the highest-income seniors to pay more of their own prescription drug costs, while ensuring that these costs do not impose an unreasonable burden,” the budget reads.

“Incomes will be checked each year, to ensure that seniors are receiving the correct level of benefits.”

CARP, an advocacy group for seniors, welcomed the move, saying it will “find general acceptance once it is clear that Ontario’s universal low deductible coverage is unique among all the provinces, and the most generous.”

“Even with the proposed changes, Ontario seniors will be among the best-off compared to those in other provinces,” the group said.

The plan to reduce the rate of growth of health-care spending to 2.1 per cent annually over the next three years goes too far, said the Ontario Nurses’ Association.

“That will mean a decrease and a loss of services and probably positions for nurses in health care in the hospitals,” said vice-president Vicki McKenna.

“We’re in a nursing shortage, we’re having difficulty recruiting into the province, and we have an aging population of nurses that are retiring.

“With this kind of budget … nurses will go elsewhere.”

As previously suggested, there will no pay increases offered to the province’s doctors in the current round of negotiations, with the budget papers noting physicians have been getting salary hikes between nine and 11 per cent in recent years.

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