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Health minister puts brakes on seniors’ drug plan ruckus

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky has brought the controversial seniors’ drug plan to a screaming stop, risking rear-end collisions with provincewide ambulance service (stalled), acute-care bed closures (cancelled) and much more.

With this minister, you have to wonder if we even need a provincial health board. He’s obviously running everything himself, at lower cost.

The drug plan, introduced by former health minister Ron Liepert to widespread complaint, had already been heavily revised. But many seniors were still upset with the income test that would have seen higher earners paying more.

The policy became a dangerous affront to older Albertans who have long been loyal to the Tories, but are now ogling the Wildrose Alliance or other alternatives.

Now Zwoz has again called a halt, with no word on a replacement date for the cancelled July 1 launch of the mortally wounded Liepert plan.

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My guess is that Liepert’s folly will not survive this procedure, although the new minister won’t quite go that far.

“I’m not sure if it will change at this point,” Zwozdesky says. “All I can say is we have to get it right. I want to make sure all the information I have is not only accurate, but complete.”

Regulations aren’t ready, for one thing. And he cites another problem: the need for approval from the federal government on any income-based program.

Ottawa being what it is, the entire senior population could be dead before approval arrives.

The immediate concerns may be technical (Zwozdesky is far too detailed to be making this up) but the political calculation is obvious, too.

In 20 years the geezer brigade will double from 400,000 to 800,000. By then seniors will make up 22 per cent of Alberta’s population.

And these people (OK, my people) tend to vote.

Liepert, of course, introduced the means test precisely because the seniors’ population would grow so quickly. The whole idea was to get the older crowd to pay more before public cost escalated sharply.

Zwozdesky is aware of that, too. “Drugs are the fastest-rising cost in the health-care system,” he says. “And did you know that the average person over 65 uses six prescriptions per month?”

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It’s enough to make you run for heart meds.

The first income-sensitive plan caused such a ruckus that it was replaced on April 24, 2009, with a scheme to charge monthly premiums. But those were also based on income.

Zwozdesky says he’s heard from seniors who wanted the revised plan. But a much larger group didn’t like it. They include the wealthy, healthy elderly — those who would pay high premiums while rarely needing drugs.

The minister, if he’s true to his usual form, will come up with a plan that manages to please most of the interest groups. That’s a big part of his job — winning back popularity for the government.

The other side of this, of course, is that younger Albertans could grow ever more offended at paying a huge public drug bill for their elders.

Zwozdesky is without doubt the most interventionist, hands-on minister in the government.

With the drug plan delay, he’s adjusting, or at least postponing, a policy that hasn’t yet taken effect. That’s definitely his job.

But his other measures — calling a halt to acute bed closures, stopping ambulance centralization halfway through — amount to operational decisions.

That’s not usually a minister’s role. He doesn’t care.

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dbraid@theherald.canwest.com