About 300,000 more Quebecerswill get free prescription medicationas of July 2007, when the province will make good on a promise to expand its drug coverage.

Seniors older than 65 receiving income supplements and all welfare recipients will now be entitled to free prescription medication, Quebec health minister Philippe Couillard said on Thursday.

That means a total of 380,000 Quebecers will benefit from free drug prescriptions once coverage is extended.

The government will also lift a price freeze on patent prescription medication, which has been in place since 1994. On April 18, 2007, prescription prices will increase to match the inflation rate, or about 2 per cent a year.

Patent drugs will also be allowed to stay on a list of eligible prescriptions, even if a cheaper generic version is put on the market. These measures should help secure some 20,000 jobs in Quebec's pharmaceutical industry, Couillard said.

The cost of Quebec's drug plan has ballooned in a decade, from $1.1 billion in 1997 to $3 billion in 2006, which has sent drug plan premiums through the roof.

In 1997, Quebecers without drug insurance paid a $175 annual premium to the provincial plan. In 2006, the premium had risen to$538.

With files from the Canadian Press