TVO: Budget 2017: Partial pharmacare coming to Ontario

Despite numerous recent announcements, the Liberals saved one headline-grabbing policy for budget day: universal pharmacare for young Ontarians

 In a strategy aimed squarely at progressive voters, the Liberal budget includes a partial pharmacare plan that will cover prescriptions for Ontarians through age 24. (AntonioGuillem/iStock)

In a strategy aimed squarely at progressive voters, the Liberal budget includes a partial pharmacare plan that will cover prescriptions for Ontarians through age 24. (AntonioGuillem/iStock)

The Ontario government announced on Thursday that it will provide publicly funded drug coverage to youth in the province through age 24, so that, the budget reads, “parents are never put in the position of having to choose between paying for their children’s medication or other essentials.”

This will include more than 4,400 drugs — all the ones currently covered under the Ontario Drug Benefit (ODB) program — including prescription medications for birth control and reproductive health, mental health, and asthma, as well as ones for treating much rarer diseases. There will be no deductibles and no co-payments.

The announcement adds Ontario youth to the 2.9 million seniors and 900,000 people on social assistance who already benefit from prescription drug coverage through the ODB. The plan does not include any sort of transitional funding to help people move off of the publicly funded program — those without privately funded workplace benefits will be cut off at their 25th birthdays.

Once it's fully up and running, the program is projected to cost $465 million per year. This forms part of the $11.5 billion “booster shot” the province is giving health care over the next three years. For the sake of comparison, the government anticipates it will take in $451 million more in land transfer taxes this year, thanks to the overheated Toronto housing market.

The province spends 38 cents of every dollar on health care, accounting for the largest portion of provincial spending; this will grow an average of 3.3 per cent from 2015 to 2020, according to the budget.

Unlike the Ontario Drug Benefit program, this new pharmacare plan, called OHIP+, is not income-tested, and will be available to all youth in the province.

When asked by reporters whether the wealthy really needed this service or if the money would be better spent elsewhere, Finance Minister Charles Sousa emphasized that universal health care is a national and provincial value. Moreoever, he added, even for families who do have private health care plans, "they have co-pay deductibles and that’s expensive for them, particularly for those with kids with chronic diseases.”

The new program will kick in January 1, 2018, ensuring parents in the province see six months of benefit before the election. Along with the cut to hydro bills and other programs like the universal basic income project, Liberals are hoping that prescription drug coverage for youth will attract progressive voters who may have been leaning toward the NDP. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath announced her party's own proposal for universal pharmacare last week.

“All I can think of is that they made it up on the back of a napkin,” Horwath said of the government's competing plan. “This is a very meagre measure that falls short of what Ontarians need and deserve.”

The NDP's version of pharmacare would provide drug coverage for all Ontarians (not just youth), but for a much more limited list of drugs — 125 medicines that are deemed “essential.” It has a slightly higher bill, at $475 million per year, which Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown called a “pie in the sky” figure. The NDP's plan would come into effect in 2020, should they win the election next summer.

The Progressive Conservatives have not proposed any sort of pharmacare plan themselves, but on Thursday, Brown said the party would provide access to drug coverage, though he offered no details. “The fact that we keep acting plan after broken plan, and it’s not reaching the people that need it, doesn’t seem right to me.”