Barb McCutcheon arrived at East York’s budget breakfast with a purpose: to talk about pharmacare.
McCutcheon and her spouse, Rachelle Desrosiers, are East York residents, living only a few blocks away from the East York Community Centre where the budget breakfast — a meeting to discuss the newly released federal budget with local MP Julie Dabrusin — was held March 11. They both want to see more financial support under pharmacare, a system of public insurance coverage for prescription drugs in Canada.
Desrosiers receives Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) Disability benefits, but under the current federal budget her drugs and a lot of other medical expenses aren’t covered. Her medications cost $6,901 last year, and that’s just from her primary pharmacy. The government did not cover any of those expenses. Fortunately, her spouse has a good pension, benefits, and purchased family insurance.
Desrosiers also has a small amount of long-term disability insurance from her last job. While their combined insurance covered most of Desrosiers’ medications, they still paid $1,326.25.
Not all those on CPP Disability are so fortunate. In order to qualify for benefits, “a person [has to] have a severe and prolonged disability” usually resulting in an inability to work on a regular basis, according to the Government of Canada’s website.
That’s not all. The person had to contribute to the Canadian Pension Plan for four of the last six years, earning the minimum amount of annual income, which in 2017 was $5,500 (the number is adjusted each year).
Alternatively, the person could have contributed to CPP for only three of the last six years while still needing to earn the required minimum income, but would have had to contribute for at least 25 years. “It’s a very high standard in order to even qualify for CPP Disability benefits,” McCutcheon said.
People like Desrosiers are left in a limbo, especially if they are disabled early in life. Their disability makes it challenging for them to work and earn income, and many face high drug costs.
In addition, Ontarians aren’t eligible for the Ontario Drug Benefit (ODB) program until they are 65. For those on CPP Disability, that could mean a long wait until they get their drugs paid for. To put that in perspective, Desrosiers takes seven types of drugs each day; one of them alone costs almost $12 a day.
“The government acknowledges these people are so disabled they cannot work, yet they will not cover the cost of drugs until they’re 65,” McCutcheon said. “It’s not fair.”
Toronto-Danforth MP Dabrusin said universal pharmacare is an important issue for which she advocates. She thanked McCutcheon for bringing her story to her attention.
“In these meetings, issues are raised that I would never have known about,” Dabrusin said. “These stories are extremely helpful for me, because statistics can only really go so far.”
McCutcheon also doesn’t think it’s fair that, as of Jan. 1, pharmacare extended its coverage to offer free prescriptions for anyone under 25 in Ontario, regardless of income. She believes the government was trying to positively impact the most people possible. But why not support the people with greater need first?
“When I was 25, I was working, able-bodied, and using next to no prescriptions, yet they get their drugs paid for?” McCutcheon said. “When people who are sufficiently disabled, worked for years and paid into the government still aren’t taken care of?”
CPP Disability benefits also don’t cover costs for things such as dental, physiotherapy or eye care. These medical services add up, but for people with disabilities they can be even more expensive. Desrosiers has a very high prescription and is legally blind in one eye — they recently paid over $700 for her new glasses with no help from the government. Their insurance paid them back $150, but that minimal coverage is available only every two years.
Although McCutcheon and Desrosiers aren’t personally struggling to make ends meet, they are advocating on behalf of all people on CPP Disability benefits that deserve the right to universal pharmacare coverage. If it wasn’t for McCutcheon’s good pension and benefits, their situation might be a lot worse.
McCutcheon suggested the government allow people on CPP to access the ODB program before age 65. Those on CPP Disability represent a fraction of the population, but they are most in need of support.
Affordable Housing for Seniors
Another East York resident, Diana Ding, came to the budget meeting with an important issue to discuss that affects both the East York community and her personally: the lack of affordable housing for seniors.
“There needs to be more money invested in apartments for seniors,” Ding said. “I know many Chinese seniors that urgently need spaces to live.”
When Ding approached WoodGreen Community Services about potential affordable housing, they told her it could be a 10-year wait or longer. By bringing it to the attention of MP Dabrusin, Ding hopes more money can be put aside to address the issue.
Toronto-Danforth councillor Mary Fragedakis has heard similar stories. “We have a lot of people in our community that are aging,” she said. “They’d like to age in this community, because this is the community that they know. This is where their doctor is, their church, their synagogue, their shopping, their friends, etc.”
Though there are proposals to create new affordable housing for seniors in the East York community, nothing is official yet, she said.
Other East York locals raised issues such as transit and Indigenous affairs. They asked Dabrusin how the federal budget would address those concerns.
“These are conversations we can have together to help each other out,” Dabrusin said. “It’s one thing to have the money there, but how do you make it appear on the ground in your communities, too?”
The March 11 breakfast was the second meeting Dabrusin hosted to discuss the 2018 federal budget.