12/18/2012 01:47 EST | Updated 02/17/2013 05:12 EST

Report calls for prescription drug plan to cover uninsured in New Brunswick

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's health minister says his government will provide prescription drug coverage for people who currently have no drug coverage and will also implement a catastrophic drug plan.

"Our government is committed to bringing forth an insurance plan that will provide drug coverage to all uninsured New Brunswickers," Hugh Flemming told the legislature Tuesday.

The Progressive Conservative government tabled a report that recommends a mandatory prescription drug insurance plan to cover the estimated 70,000 families who have no drug coverage.

The provincial government struck a committee led by former health minister Dennis Furlong in January 2011 to come up with options on improving drug insurance.

The committee's report says uninsured families now pay up to $150 million per year in prescription drug costs or up to $2,100 per family.

The report presents two options that include an annual deductible of up to $500 per family and a co-payment of up to $20 per prescription, or no annual deductible and a co-payment of up to $30 per prescription.

In both cases, low-income earners would receive a subsidy based on their income level.

The families would pay about two-thirds of the cost of the program, with the rest coming from their employers and the province.

"I can assure the house that government will move swiftly to consider the options in the report and will move ahead with implementing an insurance plan as quickly as possible," Flemming said.

Donald Arseneault, the Liberal health critic, said there are good ideas in the report, but he added he would like to know if the government will fulfil its campaign promise of a catastrophic drug plan for all New Brunswickers.

"I want to make sure that all New Brunswickers will be covered, not just those without a plan," Arseneault said.

Flemming responded by saying that catastrophic drug coverage means different things to different people.

"Some are uninsured and have incomes that make any drug costs catastrophic, some need one very expensive drug that they just can't afford, others are taking a number of low cost drugs — often to manage a chronic disease — that add up to an amount they can't pay at the end of each month," he said.

"All of these situations are catastrophic, and while I can't speak to the details of a drug plan that hasn't been developed yet, I can assure the house that our insurance plan will address all of these scenarios."

But Mark Brennan, a Saint John man who lives with a rare and fatal blood disease, said he's not assured his situation will be covered.

"Is this plan going to be for all New Brunswickers not just uninsured New Brunswickers?" he asked.

"I didn't get an answer."

Brennan has paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria — or PNH — a disease that causes rapid destruction of his red blood cells.

For the last three years he has been given the drug Soliris at a cost of $500,000 per year, but his employer's drug plan doesn't cover it.

He said a charity has been picking up the cost, but doesn't know how long that will last.

"I don't know when it's going to end ... I know my days are numbered," Brennan said.

New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces without a catastrophic drug plan, and Brennan said he's the only person with his disease that has no coverage.

Flemming said the new plan will set the minimum level of coverage that all private employer plans will have to meet including which drugs those plans must cover.

"Your drug plan will be required to be brought up to the minimum of the government plan, and your employer will be faced with either meeting our standard of drug care or getting out of the drug business and joining our program," he said.

Flemming said it may actually be a benefit for more people to join the government plan by giving it a greater "critical mass."