HALIFAXThe Nova Scotia government released a new pharmacare program Monday that it said would lessen the financial burden of prescription drugs for some 100,000 people within two years.

While some applauded the government’s initiative to help the uninsured and under-insured, others said the program would continue to leave low-income earners in crisis.

“It doesn’t even come close to being a universal pharmacare program,” said Kyle Buott, co-ordinator for the Nova Scotia Citizens Health Care Network.

“It doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of Nova Scotia. It’s laughable.”

The program, which is open to all Nova Scotians, places a cap on annual out-of-pocket costs of certain drugs on a percentage of a family’s or single person’s income.

Nova Scotia will begin accepting claims on March 1.

Emily Somers, director of pharmaceutical services for the Health Department, said the program was similar to strategies already used in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

While there are no premiums or upfront fees, there is a 20 per cent co-payment and a deductible based on family income.

The program is expected to cost up to $40 million in the first full year and $50 million by 2010.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said the program will help cover catastrophic drug costs, but it’s not as family friendly as the Conservatives claim it is.

“Don’t try to sell this as something that is there for low-income Nova Scotians,” McNeil said in an interview.

“When you start punching the numbers into this program, they’re still going to be forced between buying prescription drugs or feeding themselves.”

But officials insisted that while there is no cap on the income eligible applicants are permitted to earn, people with the lowest incomes and highest drug costs will benefit the most.

For example, a married father of two who spends $1,000 a year to manage his high blood pressure could save $560 if his combined family income is $25,000 and he has no outside health coverage.

In another scenario, a married couple earning a total of $40,000 a year and who pay out $5,050 to cover drug costs related to epilepsy and asthma could save $2,560.

Premier Rodney MacDonald insisted his government has strived to include all Nova Scotians in the new plan and was quick to dismiss any opposition criticism.

“The difference between the parties is very clear on this one: we put forward a plan for universal drug coverage, they didn’t,” he told reporters, adding that 180,000 Nova Scotians are not covered under a drug plan.

Mike McBane of the Canadian Health Coalition, which is actively pushing for a national pharmacare program, commended Nova Scotia for expanding prescription drug coverage, calling it a “significant step in the right direction.”

“There’s still a ways to go,” he said from St. John’s, N.L. “We don’t think access to medication should be means-tested or income-tested, but to get to that universal coverage, we definitely need federal leadership.”

A report released earlier this month by the Canadian Institute for Health Information estimated health spending in Canada would hit an all-time high of $160.1 billion this year, up from $150.3 billion in 2006.

Advocates pushing for a national pharmacare plan say skyrocketing drug costs are fueling the sharp increase in spending.