Ontario's new pharmacare plan a tough pill to swallow, say critics

The province's plan to offer free prescription medications to people 25 and under kicks in Jan. 1. But some critics are already questioning whether the plan goes far enough.

Free medications are on the way for 4 million young people in Ontario beginning on Jan. 1

Pharmacist Mike Hannalah, owner of Smith's Pharmacy in north Toronto, says the province's new pharmacare plan doesn't go far enough. (Mike Smee/CBC News)

The province's plan to offer free prescription medications to young people kicks in Jan. 1, but some critics are already questioning whether the plan goes far enough.

About 4,400 medications — including things like asthma inhalers and EpiPens — will be available to anyone under the age of 25 for free, provided they have an OHIP number, according to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

But pharmacist Mike Hannalah, of Smith's Pharmacy in north Toronto, says the list of medications not covered in the new plan is too long.

Progressive Conservative health critic Jeff Yurek (centre) argues the new plan doesn't include enough coverage for young people living with rare diseases. (Queen's Park)

"There'll be those kinds of surprises," he told CBC Toronto. "IVs, injections, brand name versus generic — it's a long list."

Ontario's Progressive Conservative health critic Jeff Yurek echoed those concerns. He called the plan a good first step, but he also said it doesn't go far enough.

"It doesn't reach all the people who need coverage, including those living with rare diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, who rely on life-saving drugs," Yurek said in a statement. 

The provincial Liberals announced the program, called OHIP+, in last spring's budget. 

It's expected to cost about $450 million a year and affect about four million people province-wide, regardless of income, said Eric Hoskins, minister of health and long-term care. 

"It will mean that a significant number of Ontarians that we know are not taking their medications because they can't afford them will not have that financial worry," Hoskins said.

Hoskins added that the new program is essentially an expansion of a plan that's currently available to Ontario's seniors and those on Ontario Works, which offers financial and employment help to residents of the province.

It covers "the simplest things from ointment or creams for a skin rash, to the most complicated — so drugs for cancer," he said. "It's the biggest expansion of medicare in this province since the creation of medicare itself."

Under the plan, young people or their parents can show up at their local pharmacy with an OHIP card and a prescription written by a doctor or nurse practitioner. Hoskins said there will be no up-front fees, or co-payments to have the prescription filled.

Ontario Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Eric Hoskins says the new pharmacare plan will affect about 4 million young people. (CBC News)

"This will really make a difference in the bottom line, in the family, the household finances, so they'll be able to direct those funds where they are needed most."

Some of the newly-covered medications:

  • Antibiotics to treat infections.
  • Inhalers for asthma.
  • Various insulins, oral diabetic medications and diabetes test strips.
  • Epinephrine auto-injectors (e.g. EpiPen).
  • Drugs to treat arthritis, epilepsy and other chronic conditions.
  • Medications to treat mental health conditions (e.g. antidepressants).
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs.
  • Drugs to treat some childhood cancers and other rare conditions.

For a more detailed list of the medications covered, check this Ontario government page.

About 4,400 prescription medications are covered undre the Liberals' new OHIP + plan. (Mike Smee/CBC News)