Government has to go back to fairness

Dear Editor;

Members of the Central Alberta Council on Aging received a Seniors Health Bulletin in the mail from Blue Cross, as did all seniors in the province. Albertans are already familiar with Blue Cross, which has been operating the drug coverage program for seniors on behalf of Alberta government for many years. The bulletin, created especially for you by Alberta Health and Wellness, is an explanation of the latest version of the Pharmaceutical Strategy which is to be imposed on Albertans in a few months. This is the version that includes the “improvements” made by Minister Ron Liepert in response to the widespread outcry over the unfairness of the first version.

To ease the financial burden for some seniors, those who are poorest (with an income of less than $24,000 a year for a single senior) will not have to pay any premiums. Those who are rich (a single senior with an annual income of $48,001 or more, or a senior couple with a joint income of $96,001 or more) will pay the full Blue Cross premium of $762 a year for a single senior ($1416 for a senior couple), and a co-payment of 20 percent for each prescription, Seniors whose income is somewhere in between will qualify for a partial subsidy.

The minister has decided that people who are not rich but also not really poor can be divided into two groups, and receive either a 25 percent or a 50 percent premium subsidy. This leads to some ridiculous and very unfair situations. At the present time the full Blue Cross premium is $762.00 for a single senior. A person with an annual income of $48,000 will be eligible for the 25 percent subsidy and will pay a premium of only $571.44. If his neighbour has an income of one dollar more, he will pay the full premium. How fair is that?

Similarly, a person with an income of $36,000 will be eligible for a 50 percent subsidy and will be charged a premium of $381.00. If by some stroke of bad luck, his income should go up a dollar or two in the year, he will be charged a premium of $571.44. You have to wonder if the minister bothered to do the math. Surely the MLAs, if they have discussed this new plan at all, must see the unfairness of this fee structure.

It will become even more unfair when the government increases the Blue Cross premiums. The government has announced plans to triple the Blue Cross premium rates by the time the new seniors’ plan kicks in on July 1, 2010. That will mean annual premiums of $2286 for a single senior and $4248 for a seniors couple. A 25% or 50% discount on premium rates that the government plans to increase by 300% is not much of a break.

Because prescription drugs are part of preventative medicine, putting financial barriers in the way of people obtaining the medications they require is short-sighted. They may end up seriously ill in the emergency room and frequently have to be admitted to hospital where, under the terms of the Canada Health Act, the medicine they require is freely available to them. Such treatment in acute care hospitals will cost far more than any money saved by altering the current drug plans.

We fund our social services through various means but primarily through a taxation system that is supposed to spread the burden equitably throughout the population in accordance with each individual’s ability to pay. We don’t tax only parents for education costs; we don’t tax only national park users for the cost of those amenities, so why are we forcing other seniors to carry the cost of free prescription drugs for their low-income peers?

Universality is a key principle of health care coverage. What the government doesn’t seem to understand is that seniors don’t want to be divided into income categories. During our working lives and even in retirement, we have purchased supplementary health care insurance with fixed coverage, a fixed co-payment, and a fixed premium; income doesn’t enter into it.

Write and call Health and Wellness Minister Liepert and your MLAs. Ask them to go back to fairness. They must be held accountable for protecting the interests of seniors, of all income levels.

Sam Denhaan

Central Alberta Council on Aging

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