Premier Rodney MacDonald says Nova Scotians will no longer have to choose between expensive prescription drugs and other basic necessities, thanks to the $50-million Family Pharmacare Program that starts next year.

“It means the cost of keeping healthy will no longer be financially devastating to Nova Scotians,” Mr. MacDonald said at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax on Monday.

He said the program, which starts on March 1, is aimed at the 180,000 Nova Scotians who have no drug insurance, as well as those who have high drug costs not covered by their private plans.

“It will reduce the overall burden of preventable and costly illness and disease to the health-care system,” the premier said. “And it means no Nova Scotians will have to turn down a job because prescription drug coverage is not offered.”

Any Nova Scotia resident with a Nova Scotia health card can enrol in the program, but the coverage is based on household income, number of family members and the cost of the required drugs. There are no premiums, but there is a 20 per cent co-pay with a yearly maximum based on family income. There is also a deductible determined by family income. The plan applies to those drugs and supplies now covered by the province.

Those enrolled in the Seniors Pharmacare plan can switch to the new plan, but they cannot be in both.

Mr. MacDonald said he expects the program will cost $35 million to $40 million for the first full fiscal year with costs reaching $50 million by 2010.

The premier said the province will be able to cover the program’s price tag.

“We feel very comfortable with this number,” Mr. MacDonald said. “As you can appreciate, we have a (provincial) budget that’s well over $7 billion.”

The Family Pharmacare Program was a plank in the Tories’ 2006 election platform and at that time the estimated cost was pegged at $75 million.

Health Minister Chris d’Entremont said he doesn’t expect individuals or companies will drop private insurance coverage because of the new plan.

“This is designed to be a safety net,” the minister said. “It is not the end-all and be-all of plans.”

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said the Tories have drawn up a catastrophic drug plan, not the families pharmacare plan that was promised in the last election.

He said he visited the plan’s website — — and used the calculator provided to determine how a family of three with a household income of $30,000 would fare. It said before that family could access the plan, it would have to spend $600 on drugs to use up its deductible and shell out $150 in co-payments.

The Liberal said that deductible is steep.

“Where do they get the money?” he asked.

Kyle Buott, co-ordinator of the Nova Scotia Citizens’ Health Care Network, called Monday’s announcement “laughable,” saying it will exclude some Nova Scotians.

“It’s not a universal program. It doesn’t provide first-dollar coverage and in fact there is a 20 per cent co-pay and the deductable is based on income,” he said. “So it’s not going to really reach the people that they are trying to reach.”

Others were more receptive.

Angela Lamey, who stopped working full time when her oldest son was diagnosed with a form of autism eight years ago, said there have been times that finances have forced her to go without the inhaler she needs to treat her asthma.

“I can’t begin to explain how stressful it is to be put into a situation where you have to say I can’t do this because I don’t have any money,” the Halifax mother of two boys said. “It’s very stressful and it’s demoralizing and it’s demeaning and it just points out to you how few choices you have. And because of this program, this is something I won’t have to do now.”

Maureen Summers of the Canadian Cancer Society said she and other members of the Nova Scotia Health Charities Network were very pleased with Monday’s announcement.

“It’s crucial that all Nova Scotians get the basic drug coverage they need to ultimately improve their health outcomes,” she said.

Emily Somers, director of pharmaceutical services with the Health Department, said the province estimates nearly 100,000 individuals and 50,000 households will be enrolled in the program by 2010.

As an example, she described a family of four — two adults and two kids — with a combined income of $25,000 that spent $1,000 last year for the father’s high blood pressure medicine.

She said under the new program, that family would pay $440 for the drugs and the province would pick up the other $560.

NDP health critic Dave Wilson said he was glad to see a plan to help those in need, but expressed concern that the $50-million price tag is too conservative.

“Potentially, when you are dealing with Pharmacare and pharmaceuticals, those costs increase quite quickly,” the New Democrat said.

He said he hopes the province has a way to ensure companies don’t swap the private coverage they now offer to their employees for the new provincially funded plan.

“That would just increase the cost of delivering this program here in the province,” Mr. Wilson said.