The Nova Scotia government has reversed an earlier stand and will pay for the drug Lucentis, which helps people who are losing their eyesight because of age.
The government announced Wednesday that it will pay for the treatment beginning Jan. 1.
Lucentis does not cure wet age-related macular degeneration, a chronic disease of the retina, but it does slow the deterioration of a person's eyesight. Nova Scotia was the only province that did not pay for the drug.
"Lucentis is an expensive drug, but by delivering the treatment in hospital-based eye clinics, using retinal specialists, we can improve efficiencies and reduce the budget impact by millions of dollars in the coming years," Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said in a statement.
"It is a creative approach, and the right decision to provide better health care while living within our means."
Lucentis will be provided to beneficiaries covered by Seniors' Pharmacare, Family Pharmacare and Community Services Pharmacare programs. The announcement does not affect patients with private insurance.
Macular degeneration is a disease of a small area at the centre of the retina. The growth of blood vessels into the retina can prevent sufferers from seeing fine details and lead to blindness. It tends to affect people age 50 or older, but the vast majority of those affected are at least 65.
"I call it a wonder drug," said Murray Knowles, who has used Lucentis. Without it, the 94-year-old said he wouldn't be as active as he is now.
Avastin also covered
"I can still walk and run a little bit and do young things," Knowles said with a laugh.
"The sad part of this whole thing is many people are losing their sight and going blind because Nova Scotia has been so slow in coming forward to approve the cost of this treatment."
It had been estimated that funding Lucentis would cost the province $3.5 million in the first year, and MacDonald said as recently as May that Nova Scotia couldn't afford it.
But concerned citizens argued that not providing funding would cause other health problems, including depression and an increased chance of falls.
Patients had been paying about $1,800 to $2,000 per injection for Lucentis therapy, usually requiring six or more injections per year.
Dr. Alan Cruess, chief of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the Capital District Health Authority, said the funding announcement is like a dream come true.
"Upwards of 40 per cent of patients are retaining their driving vision, as an example, from the use of this drug," he told reporters during Wednesday's news conference.
The province also announced it will also cover a less expensive alternative drug, Avastin.
Avastin — developed to treat colorectal cancer — has not been approved as a treatment for macular degeneration, but many doctors consider it a viable alternative. Patients had been paying up to $500 per shot for Avastin.
"Cost did drive a lot of folks toward Avastin, and we were able to use it in patients who didn't have third-party insurance or couldn't afford [Lucentis]," said Cruess.
The treatments will be done at the Victoria General site of the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. The program may eventually be expanded to other clinics in the province.