It was the first high-profile announcement the new Progressive Conservative government made after taking office in late June: the Liberals’ plan to provide free prescription drugs to anyone under 25 years of age — OHIP+ — would be radically scaled back.
What happened next was somewhat surprising, given that the plan, unveiled with much fanfare, had been one of the pillars of Kathleen Wynne’s re-election effort. The reaction was: almost nothing. There were no demonstrations at Queen’s Park and no memorable tirades during question period.
Health Minister Christine Elliott made the announcement that the PCs would kill OHIP+ — and then everyone seemingly moved on to the next issue right away.
There had been a great deal of concern in health-care circles that OHIP+ was simply unaffordable. The Wynne government said the annual cost to taxpayers of $465 million was within budget, but critics countered that the Liberals were low-balling their estimates by hundreds of millions of dollars. They also wondered why the government would choose to cover people 25 and under, given that many of them already had coverage under their parents’ workplace drug-benefit plans or other government-run programs.
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Considering that Elliott’s announcement came literally one day after Premier Doug Ford’s new cabinet was sworn in, Ontarians could be forgiven for having the impression that the savings to the treasury would start immediately.
That’s certainly what I thought — until a week ago, when I went to fill a prescription for one of my own children. As I reached for my wallet to pay the pharmacist, I saw the price tag on the package: $0.00.
How can this be? I wondered. Wasn’t OHIP+ cancelled?
Not yet, apparently.
As quickly as the Ford government has moved in some areas (reducing the size of Toronto city council, bringing back buck-a-beer pricing, cancelling the cap-and-trade program), things have proceeded much more slowly on OHIP+. And given that the government bore little to no political cost for having vowed to cancel it, what exactly is the hold up? Isn’t the whole idea behind cancelling the program that finite benefits will be focused more directly on those without existing drug plans — the people who need coverage the most?
Yes it is, according to the press secretary for the minister of health and long-term care.
“This new system will save taxpayer dollars by dedicating resources to the people who need it the most, while ensuring that children and youth who are not covered by private benefits continue to receive their eligible prescriptions,” wrote Hayley Chazan in an email.
“The current OHIP+ program remains in place until these changes are made.”
Essentially, the government had two options: They could have cancelled OHIP+ and returned to the previous system — but that would’ve left some Ontarians under the age of 25 without coverage. So instead, the government has decided to keep OHIP+ in place for now, then to negotiate with the insurance companies to create something that targets those most in need. Without OHIP+ backstopping the situation, the fear was that some employers might not cover young people who hadn’t had coverage before.
It turns out while some things can happen very quickly in government, other things take a long time. Redrafting legislation to ensure the private sector does its bit while the government creates its own targeted drug program is a complex undertaking. However, the pressure to get to the finish line must be intense. Ford has been nothing if not absolutely clear about his intention to “drive efficiencies” in government — to figure out how to save money without reducing services. Experts such as Helen Stevenson of the Reformulary Group say killing OHIP+ and replacing it with something that better focuses on actual need would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. So the incentive to figure this out is obvious for a government that’s desperate to find billions in savings posthaste.
Three days ago, I asked the health minister’s spokesperson when she expected a new system would be in place. I’m still waiting for the response. So, I suspect, is the rest of Ontario.