A day after promising significant new spending on a slew of social programs in its spring budget, Ontario’s Liberal government rolled out one of the first major policies ahead of the spring election — free prescription drugs for seniors.
Premier Kathleen Wynne said Tuesday that starting Aug. 1, 2019, people aged 65 or older will no longer have to pay a deductible or co-payment for more than 4,400 prescription drugs. Wynne said the program will cost $575 million a year when it is fully operational in 2020-21.
“It’s going to mean one less thing people have to worry about and it’s going to deliver real savings to help manage the rising cost of living,” Wynne said.
Drugs covered in the program include medications for cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and asthma. The government estimates the program will save the average senior $240 a year.
Last year, the province created its OHIP+ pharmacare program that provides free prescription drugs to people 24 years old or younger.
The announcement comes a day after the government pledged in a throne speech to fund a series of new programs — including the expanded pharmacare plan — the details of which will be included in the provincial budget set to be tabled on March 28.
That budget could run a deficit as high as $8 billion, breaking a key government promise to balance the budget this year. Wynne said the spending is necessary to help Ontario residents who are struggling to make ends meet.
“We’ve made a conscious and deliberate decision that we need to invest in people’s care,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of work. We’ve put in place OHIP+ for kids. We’ve put in place free tuition. We raised the minimum wage …. but still people are coming to us and saying we need more support.”
Wynne said she still favours a federal pharmacare plan for all Canadians, but until that is developed Ontario will cover the costs for young people and seniors.
“The reality is that there is still more to do,” she said. “If we don’t make these investments now, we will pay a price down the road.”
Progressive Conservative health critic Jeff Yurek said his party is committed to a “proper” provincial pharmacare plan, but said the timing of the Liberal government’s announcement calls into question their dedication to the plan.
“The Wynne Liberals have been in power for 15 years, and they’ve had 15 years to address health-care challenges for seniors,” he said in a statement. “It’s only now in an election year that they’ve decided to take any action.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the Liberal’s pharmacare plan still leaves nearly 2.2 million Ontario residents without drug coverage and its implementation is still over a year away.
“Families are being forced to empty their wallets to get the medicine they need,” she said in a statement. “Too many people cut their pills in half to make the bottle last longer. One in four Ontarians can’t afford the medication prescribed by their doctor.”