Catastrophic drug plan falls short, Liberals say

The Opposition Liberals say New Brunswickers are going to be disappointed if they're expecting a catastrophic drug plan from the Alward government.

Health critic Donald Arseneault says it's far from what David Alward promised

The Opposition Liberals say New Brunswickers are going to be disappointed if they're expecting a catastrophic drug plan from the Alward government.

Liberal MLA Donald Arseneault, the opposition's health critic, says he has been briefed on the committee report, submitted to the provincial government on Wednesday, and it's a long way from what Premier David Alward promised during the 2010 election.

"People have in their mindset, what they're expecting because of what they were promised, that all these drugs are going to be covered. It's not the case," Arseneault said.

Arseneault says the committee report addresses the estimated 20 per cent of New Brunswickers who don't have drug coverage through their job benefits, but who aren't on welfare and therefore don't qualify for coverage from the provincial government.

But it will not add any drugs that aren't already on the provincial list, he said.

Health Minister Ted Flemming has declined to comment.

"This report will be tabled in the legislature before the assembly closes for Christmas. The government will also react at that time," he said.

Catastrophic drug coverage ensures that no one is denied access to necessary, high-cost drugs based on where they live, or their ability to pay.

New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces without a program to cover the cost of expensive drugs for people who need them to stay alive or to keep debilitating illnesses at bay.

As a result, some New Brunswick patients face annual bills in the five- to six-figure range.

Patients wait anxiously

Mark Brennan says his life-saving medication costs $500,000 a year.

He has a rare disease that destroyed his blood cells and threatened to kill him, but a drug called Soliris has transformed his life, he said.

"Yes, everything works and with this treatment, I'm happy to say that I even forget that I have a condition," he said on Friday, following a $20,000 transfusion that took 90 minutes.

Brennan says he's been waiting for the government announcement with mixed emotions, ranging from anxiety to excitement.

"With a catastrophic drug plan, if this comes to fruition, my worries and everybody else in this situation, our worries will be over," he said.

Arseneault contends the planned changes won't help Brennan because they don't call for coverage of Soliris or any other new drugs.

But the changes will help those who currently don't have any coverage, Arseneault said.

Shared cost model

It's unclear what the premiums would be, but the government committee has recommended a cost-share model, with the family paying two-thirds and the government and employer paying the rest, he said.

Such changes would be welcome news for those who struggle to pay for common medications, including the 70,000 New Brunswickers who have diabetes, said Jake Reid, of the Diabetes Association.

"They have the highest out-of-pocket costs from across Canada, in New Brunswick," he said.

The wait for a new drug plan is costing everybody, including those who stop taking their meds because they can't afford them, Reid said.

"Every day that we wait, it impacts more people because of their diabetes. It sends more people to hospital, their doctors, health clinics, so there's a cost to the population, not just people with diabetes," he said.

The provincial government struck a committee to look into developing options for a prescription drug plan for uninsured residents in August 2010.

Dennis Furlong, a former provincial health minister, was the chair of the 11-member health benefits committee.

More than a quarter of New Brunswickers have no prescription drug coverage, government officials have said.