If there had to be only one ironclad rule of politics, it would be: don't mess with seniors.

Now the McNeil government is messing with seniors and the results are predictable.

The public discussion on the seniors' pharmacare program issue has gone from "What are they doing?" to "What are they hiding?"

Higher premium

Here's a fact, though you'll find it nowhere in government documents: starting April 1, the McNeil government is going to charge 40,000 seniors a higher premium if they want to stay in seniors' pharmacare.

Anyone with an income of $35,000 or over will pay more. Their new annual premium will range from $480 to $1,200, depending on income, compared to the current maximum of $424.

That's a tough message, but it's potentially defensible. A more rigorously income-tested program may be good public policy.

So how does the McNeil government go about making its case for important changes to a major, sensitive program? It doesn't even try. Good news only, please. For two weeks, the government's spin machine has been in high gear.

Until today, they would not give a straight answer to simple questions about certain key details of the program changes.

Football in fog

In particular, they have refused to state the budgetary impact of the change. In fact, they have been maddeningly obfuscatory.

I heard Health Minister Leo Glavine being interviewed by the CBC's Bob Murphy earlier this week, and it was like watching football in the fog. I knew something was happening, but it made no sense.

The government's stock answer has been that they won't have a number until the year is over.

That is — to borrow a phrase from interim NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald — bollocks.

You could say the same for any government program — you don't know the precise cost until all the bills are in. But that doesn't excuse you from making an estimate based on reasonable assumptions.

The fact that the minister, the deputy minister and the department's spokesperson all tried that we'd-love-to-tell-you-but-we-can't line does no credit to any of them.

Today, finally, under pressure from reporters, the government released its figures. The journalists were told the figures were similar, though not identical, to the numbers the minister would have had when he made his decision.

New revenue

So what did we learn today?

All things being equal, the changes will produce $10 million of new revenue for the government in the next fiscal year, which starts on April 1, and $9 million the year after. After that, the savings steadily drop and will eventually vanish.

In the worst-case scenario, in which 15,000 of the lowest-cost members leave the program, the changes will actually cost the government more money.

So neither the best-case scenario, nor the worst case, supports the claim of sustainability. Best case, worst case, middle case: the savings are short-term only.

Like any program, seniors' pharmacare can't be untouchable. It's one of the bigger programs in the Department of Health and Wellness — this year it covers $166 million worth of drugs — and costs are growing more rapidly than provincial revenue.

But the program is set up in a way that changes can happen merely on the minister's say-so. Changes don't need to go to the legislature. Changes don't even need to go to the cabinet. The minister says, "Do this," and it's done.

There was no public consultation.

What we got was a done deal, and it's only by dint of hard digging that we're able to figure out what's actually going on.

Stop the spin

If we're going to have any kind of sensible debate about this important public policy issue, the government's spin needs to stop.

Stop saying only rich or high-income seniors are being asked to pay more. The higher premiums start at $35,000. That's not rich. That's not high income.

Stop saying the changes are about sustainability. In the context of a heavily subsidized program, that's a meaningless buzzword. Besides, the department's numbers show that the savings to the government are short-term only.

Stop saying the changes are about fairness. The seniors' pharmacare program was never designed to redistribute income from one group of seniors to another.

Start explaining why premiums are going up less than 10 months after the minister stood in the legislature and said premiums would never go up as long as he was the minister.

Leo Glavine is forgetting the one ironclad rule of politics.

He's messing with seniors and he does so at his — and his government's — peril.