A hike in drug costs for middle- and high-income seniors in the latest provincial budget could lead some elderly and vulnerable Ontarians to stop taking their prescription medications, the advocacy group for seniors has warned.

The proposed changes to the Ontario Drug Benefit program for seniors would expand the pool of those eligible for coverage. But it also hikes the annual deductible for seniors who are above the qualifying income threshold by $70, to $170, and increases the co-payment, or fee paid per prescription, by $1.

Wanda Morris

Wanda Morris, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, says the changes to the Ontario Drug Benefit program for seniors could lead some to stop taking their medications, putting them at greater risk of needing emergency care. (CBC)

At one Toronto seniors' exercise class, several said they aren't sure how they'll pay.

"I think it's ludicrous. People who are living on $19,000 a year — which is myself by the way — have no extra money for anything," Anne Burgess told CBC News. 

"We're only on a fixed income. That little bit makes us want to cut back and we don't want to do that," said Ross Hughes.  

Wanda Morris, vice-president of advocacy and the COO of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), said she's pleased that drug coverage has been extended to low-income seniors.

"But I'm really concerned about the cost increases for other seniors, particularly those that just miss the income coverage," Morris said.

"Imagine someone living in Toronto on $20,000 a year. That's a very hard budget to meet and a $70 increase in drug costs could mean that they stop taking prescription medication."

Morris said her organization recently polled its members on the issue and found that 10 per cent don't always fill their prescriptions over concerns about cost.

"So that to me is a pretty significant number of people at risk of being hospitalized and requiring emergency care," she said.

'Seniors are going to be shocked'

The province's opposition parties criticized the changes Thursday, saying life has become more expensive for Ontarians who often are living on fixed incomes.

"I think seniors are going to be shocked. They're going to be worried," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters during the media lock-up prior to the tabling of the budget.

"The vast majority of seniors in the province are living on fixed incomes, and their fixed incomes are not going up."

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A CARP executive says an internal poll found that 10 per cent of members don't always fill their prescriptions over concerns about cost.

On Friday, Premier Kathleen Wynne defended the move, saying that 170,000 seniors will now qualify for the program.

"We've looked at the way medicine was being allocated and we've said 'there were too many seniors on low income who were still having to pay,'" Wynne told CBC Radio's Metro Morning. "They're not going to have to pay anything."

She noted that the government also plans to offer the shingles vaccine to seniors aged 65 to 70 for free. The vaccine typically costs about $170.

"We're making changes that make sense," Wynne said, acknowledging that "there are some instances where people will pay a bit more, that's true."

Morris acknowledged she was pleased to see the shingles vaccine coverage in the budget, as well as a five-per-cent increase in funding for community care.

"That's evidence-based medicine and could reduce hospitalizations and emergency care," she said. "So we've seen some good steps, but I think the drug cost is a misstep."