12/10/2013 09:26 EST | Updated 02/09/2014 05:59 EST

New Brunswick health minister unveils long-awaited catastrophic drug plan

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government has introduced a long-awaited catastrophic drug plan to help relieve patients of the costs of their prescription medication.

The plan will be rolled out in phases and once up and running, is estimated to cost up to $150 million annually, the government said Tuesday.

The Tory government promised to have the drug plan in place during the first year of its mandate, but instead it won't become active until just over four months ahead of the next provincial election in September 2014. New Brunswick will be the last province in the country with a catastrophic drug plan.

The plan, to be administered by Medavie Blue Cross, will be implemented in two phases. People can enrol in the plan starting May 1, with premiums ranging between $800 and $2,000 per year, depending on their income levels.

The premiums for people with low incomes will be subsidized up to 100 per cent.

As of April 1, 2015, any New Brunswicker without a private drug plan will have to join the provincial plan.

Health Minister Hugh Flemming said that once the plan is fully implemented, premiums could be reduced because of the greater number of people paying into the plan. Drugs will have to be on the provincial drug formulary in order to be covered.

"I understand that it is an emotional issue, but no drug plan in Canada covers every drug in the market," Flemming said. "The New Brunswick drug plan, through this formula, will cover drugs that have been scientifically proven to be effective in treating specific illness."

Aside from the premiums, participants in the plan will have to pay up to $30 per prescription at the drug store.

About 70,000 New Brunswick families do not have prescription drug coverage.

Lynn Hansen, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, praised the plan, saying it will provide coverage for people who otherwise might not be able to afford it.

"It should put more drugs within reach of more people," she said.

Barbara MacKinnon, president of the New Brunswick Lung Association, said the program will help pay for itself by keeping people healthy.

For now, businesses will not be required to pay a premium for their employees enrolled in the plan, but Flemming said a committee has been formed to work with businesses to determine possible premiums in the future.

Liberal Opposition health critic Donald Arseneault said those are the kinds of details that should already have been determined.

"Basically the premier is putting off until after his mandate is over to figure out how he's going to pay for it," Arseneault said.