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NS pharmacare consultations on hold after Atlantic premiers discuss drug plans

A pill counter, used by pharmacists to count prescription medication, is shown. Pharmacists in New Brunswick say there's issues with the province's new electronic prescription drug monitoring system. File/Global News

Planned consultations on Nova Scotia’s seniors’ pharmacare program have been put on hold following discussions among Atlantic premiers during a two-day meeting in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The delay is a result of an agreement between the four Atlantic provinces to look into new ways of creating more affordable, stronger publicly-funded drug plans in the Atlantic region as a whole.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia reviewing controversial changes to seniors’ pharmacare

Health Minister Leo Glavine told Global News in an interview Monday that consultations will still take place “in the coming months,” but there is a need to take time.

“We want the survey to be done well, we want the on-the-ground consultations to be done exceptionally well, a report done up that all Nova Scotians can see what the program is going to look like and I think doing that right is what we owe to Nova Scotians,” Glavine said.

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The minister said they wanted to avoid issues faced about a year ago when he said the government “hurried” to get the pharmacare program out. He said though some consulting was done, it was “nowhere near” what was needed.

WATCH: With the clock ticking down to 2017 seniors in Halifax are wondering about the government’s planned changes to the seniors pharmacare program. Global’s legislative reporter Marieke Walsh tries to get some answers.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia not yet ready to explain future of seniors pharmacare' Nova Scotia not yet ready to explain future of seniors pharmacare
Nova Scotia not yet ready to explain future of seniors pharmacare – Sep 12, 2016

Last February, seniors’ advocacy groups raised issue with the proposed program changes announced in January of 2016, asking the government to slow down its implementation. The groups had issue with several alterations, including how much seniors had to pay for premiums – which meant triple the cost for some.

At that time, the government put the changes on hold and had said it would hold consultations to revamp the program for 2017, but no commitment was given when those consultations would happen. A government release Monday said no changes to the program are planned for 2017-18, which was previously announced, and 2018-19.

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Speed an issue

Bill VanGorder, with the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), said Monday’s announcement is both positive and negative.

“It’s good news that there aren’t going to be any huge increases in price like they tried to do last year when they made the first announcement, but it also means there won’t likely be any improvements in the program over the next couple of years,” VanGorder said.

VanGorder said with the program seeing no changes made in both years, it means a further delay on significant alterations to pharmacare plans in the province.

“The process is moving much too slowly,” VanGorder said. “Remember it was this time last year that we had this whole discussion, why has it taken till now – a whole year later – to make this decision. A good decision now, yes, but much too slow.”

The consultations, Glavine said, would instead be used to design a program for the long-term as changing something for only a few years can be expensive.

“We don’t want to design something for the next couple of years … and so if we can design a senior pharmacare program that could take us through a couple of decades, that’s really the goal,” Glavine said.

“We’re looking at the long-term through our entire health approach. It’s to look out 10, 20 years and design both our programs, our facilities and our services to Nova Scotians.”

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A long-term approach is a good idea, VanGorder said, but he said a program is needed that allows flexibility.

“It’s a fast-changing area so you don’t want to put yourself into a position where you’re committed for so long that you can’t take advantage of new advances,” he said.

READ MORE: Changes to Pharmacare will see premium cuts for some seniors in Nova Scotia

A regional example for national consideration

Glavine also said he expects a report will come out of the premiers’ discussion for drug plans which could lead to something on a bigger scale.

“I think it can be a regional cooperation that could be the birth, a great example for national pharmacare,” he said.

VanGorder said he’s happy to hear they’re working on an Atlantic-wide plan, but added seniors groups would still push the federal government to move on a national pharmacare program.

The province, according to a release, relies on drug plans funded by the public to reduce medication costs.

With the region’s collective population expected to become close to 30 per cent seniors in 13 years time, it’s important to meet the needs of that group, Glavine added.

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