Drug coverage changes kick Albertans while they're down

EDMONTON
October 21, 2020

Drug coverage changes kick Albertans while they're down

AHS has proposed a new program that would shift the cost of certain medications, including those used to treat cancer and Crohn’s, onto patients, as revealed in a CBC report today. This change exemplifies this government’s cruel, shameful and short-sighted approach to saving money on the backs of sick Albertans.

The Standardizing Access to Medications for Ambulatory Patients (STAMP) program aims to reduce AHS spending by an estimated $2.3 million dollars by requiring that patients pay for the cost of their medications, as well as the costs of having them administered, such as in the case of infusions.

The medications affected are some that would otherwise be covered in an acute care setting. These are life saving medications that Albertans with chronic conditions rely on to avoid becoming acutely ill or even facing death. Instead of ready access to their medications in hospitals and clinics, patients will be instructed to purchase private insurance plans to cover some of the costs.

“This is not about standardizing clinics and drug costs, it is simply about offloading costs on to patients and their families,” says Sandra Azocar, Executive Director of Friends of Medicare. “This is about expanding the role of private insurance to decide who receives coverage and who does not. Our health care is supposed to be available to all of us based on our need, not our ability to pay. This is a time when that fundamental principle of our medicare is clearly not being honoured.”

The Canada Health Act states that Canadians must have reasonable access to insured services without charge or user fees. In passing on the costs of these drugs to Albertan patients, the STAMP program violates the principle of accessibility by creating a financial barrier to accessing a life-saving medical treatment.

“This is yet another example from this government where they are blindly following the promise of short-term savings without any consideration for the long-term impact on Albertan patients,” says Azocar. “When people cannot afford their life-saving medications, they will require hospitalization and elevated medical interventions to address complications, resulting in major downstream costs for the health care system. Where this government continues to fail is instead of forcing Albertans to access acute care, they should be asking what they can do to ensure it does not happen again.” 

Drugs and Supplementary Benefits are the third highest cost driver in Alberta’s health care budget, yet rather than looking towards public solutions to addressing costs and ensuring the best possible patient care, this government has shown that they are instead focused on finding purported savings through solutions which unfairly impact vulnerable and ailing Albertans. 

On December 12, 2019, the Alberta government announced it would adopt a biologic switching policy, the Alberta Biosimilar Initiative, which aims to expand the use of lower cost biosimilar medications for government plan members aged 18 and over. This controversial change was supposed to be in place by July 1st, 2020, and impacts 26,000 Albertans who need biologic drugs to treat chronic illnesses like arthritis, diabetes or Crohn’s disease, including many of the most vulnerable Albertans who rely on provincial drug plans.

In March, 2020 the government kicked 46,000 dependents off of the Alberta Blue Cross Coverage for Seniors program, leaving many seniors with the added financial burden of paying for the prescription medications of their dependent children, grandchildren and spouses. 

The E&Y AHS review recommends even deeper cuts, suggesting that the government further victimize seniors and their families by implementing a co-pay for drugs for those in long term care.

If the STAMP program is allowed to continue, the impact to Albertans will rest wholly on the Premier and the Minister of Health.

“We already know the solution to rising drug costs and issues of accessibility: national pharmacare,” says Azocar. “Unfortunately, Premier Kenney has already stated that he intends to opt Alberta out of the promised federal program, in spite of decades worth of research to show it would save both lives and money.”

At a time when Albertans are already suffering the financial and health impacts of this pandemic, this government is callously charging ahead with sweeping changes to our health care system that will ultimately compromise the accessibility for those who most rely on it. If this government’s truly interested in making life better for Albertans, they would throw this program out and ensure Alberta is opted in to a national pharmacare program.

Friends of Medicare encourages Albertans to contact Premier Kenney, Health Minister Shandro and their MLA and urge them to reconsider the STAMP program and to instead opt in to national pharmacare, to ensure that ALL Albertans have access to the medications they need, regardless of their ability to pay.