Roughly 46,000 Albertans must seek new drug plan ahead of seniors benefits change

The Alberta government is set to make changes to its drug programs starting March 1, ending coverage for dependents under the Alberta Seniors Benefit Drug Program.

Alberta seniors enrolled in the program have received premium-free coverage for prescriptions and other health-related services for themselves, their spouses and dependents. In just over a month, that coverage will be limited to those over age 65 — seniors only.

The seniors' spouses and dependents will have to seek other insurance plans to cover those medical expenses. The provincial government is suggesting those affected turn to Alberta Blue Cross's non-group plan, with monthly premiums of $63.40, or $44.45 per month for those eligible for an income-based subsidy.

That change was announced as part of the 2019 Alberta budget but affected individuals were reminded of the pending change in letters sent out by the government last week. A copy of that letter was provided to CBC News by Alberta Health.

"To ensure the government can continue to provide this program to our province's seniors and to keep Alberta's health system sustainable, the government is changing the eligibility criteria for the program," the letter reads.

Steve Buick, press secretary for Health Minister Tyler Shandro, wrote in an email that the program, Alberta's largest drug program, costs $600 million per year. Ending coverage for dependents, including spouses and those under 65, will save the province about $36.5 million each year, he said.

"The Seniors [Benefit] Drug Program is for seniors — not for non-seniors. No other province covers non-seniors through a seniors' drug program," Buick said in the statement.

Roughly 46,000 Albertans currently use the program as dependents, he said.

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'It's a stressor'

The impending change has left some Albertans scrambling to understand how their prescription and other health costs may change, and which new plan will be most appropriate for them.

Edmonton resident Heather Waldie, 63, said at retirement, she planned her finances on the assumption that she would be covered through her 65-year-old husband in the Alberta Seniors Benefit Drug Program. She chose not to enrol in her teacher's retirement benefits program, instead going with the premium-free public plan she was eligible for as a spouse, at the time.

"My coverage is ending because I'm 63. I'm under 65. My husband is over 65, but with the new eligibility criteria, I am no longer eligible for drug coverage," Waldie said in an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener. "My future is very uncertain because I have ongoing treatment. So it's a stressor."

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Waldie has Stage 4 breast cancer. Outpatient cancer drugs are free for Alberta patients but having a chronic illness comes with other health-related costs. Many of those have been covered for her by the Alberta Seniors Benefit Drug Program, to the tune of $1,400 last year, minus a $500 co-pay, Waldie said. As of now, she is still calculating what will be covered under the Alberta Blue Cross non-group plan.

"Seniors are part of a family household, and [have] co-dependents, so it's a family budget," she said. "You hurt one member of a family unit, you're hurting everybody in that family unit."

Waldie has acted as a spokesperson in the protest against the change, appearing at a press conference held by the NDP in December. Waldie said she thought the province's claims that the program was too expensive was "absolute hogwash."

"This affects 46,000 Albertans who have contributed to life in Alberta, who want to contribute as they live their lives. Billions of dollars have been given away in tax cuts to corporations," Waldie said. "I think this is completely affordable by this government, but they are choosing to cut valuable programs that preserve the health and well-being of Albertans who have built this province. I think it's outrageous."

Shandro, Alberta's minister of Health, announced online that his staff have reached out to Waldie to explain the changes in the plan. She confirmed she is looking forward to meeting with them later this week.

Affected Albertans are being encouraged to apply for the Alberta Blue Cross non-group plan as soon as possible, to ensure no gap in coverage when the change takes effect on March 1.