Ontario budget 2017: Families get free prescriptions drugs for children, more aid for students

Ontario budget 2017: Families get free prescriptions drugs for children, more aid for students
Buoyed by strong economic growth and an improving fiscal picture, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government is sprinkling a flurry of new benefits and perks on Ontario families. That includes the first provincial plan in Canada to fully cover prescription drugs for children and young people.

The new measures, which range from healthcare to education, come as the Liberals, who unveiled their , gear up for provincial elections in 2018.

Here are the highlights for Ontario families:

Arguably the centrepiece of this year’s budget is the launch of so-called OHIP+, a new drug benefit that would cover 100 per cent of the cost of prescription drugs for anyone aged 24 and under.

The program will be the first of its kind in Canada, the government said.

Saskatchewan has a similar plan but the province does not fully cover drug costs and eligibility is only up to age 14.

Ontario’s plan would come into effect on Jan. 1, 2018 and extend to all of the 4,400 medications currently covered by the Ontario Drug Benefit program, which benefits 2.3 million seniors and 900,000 people on social assistance.

OHIP+ coverage would cover a wide range of essential medications include birth control, at a cost of an estimated $465 million per year.

Surprisingly, the spending figures were not included in the budget document, leading Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath to speculate the plan was a last-minute addition.

“All I can think of is that they made it up on the back of a napkin before they got to today,” Horwath, who recently unveiled her party’s own universal pharmacare plan, told reporters.

Notably, OHIP+ is not tied to income levels, meaning taxpayers’ money will go to upper-income families as well.

“We don’t put a price on our kids,” said Finance Minister Charles Sousa. “It’s a universal program,” he added.

But the plan falls short of covering those over the age of 24, including recent graduates who often struggle to cope with medication costs after losing their student health plan, Horwath noted.

One in three working Ontarians currently have no prescription drug coverage, she said, and the government did not provide an estimate for how much OHIP+ would save the average Ontario family each year.

The budget also introduced more tweaks to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), in addition to changes to boost student aid announced in 2016.

Savings in Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs) will no longer reduce the amount of OSAP assistance that students are eligible for. The change, which will benefit low-income families as well as household with higher incomes, is meant to encourage parents to save for their children’s education through RESPs, the government said.

The budget also raises the minimum salary Ontarians need to earn before having to start to repay the provincial portion of their OSAP loans from $25,000 to $35,000. The measure is likely to benefit Millennials, who often struggle with high student debt loans and low wages.

The government also pledged to boost OSAP assistance for indigenous students.

The budget contains $6.4 billion over three years in new spending on education. The money has been earmarked for childcare and to cover costs from enrollment increases, among other things.

On April 26, the government promised to add 24,000 new licensed childcare spots in fiscal year 2017-18 and provide subsidies for about 60 per cent of those spots. That’s part of the government’s previous pledge to create child care space for 100,000 more children.

There is also $1.2 billion in additional funding for school repairs and renewal over the next two years. That brings capital investment to help build and improve schools to almost $16 billion over 10 years.

However, both the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party blasted the Wynne government for forging ahead with 300 planned school closures.

The province is also implementing a $4.6 million cut to special needs education funding across 15 school boards, the NDP noted.

The budget also mentions a new health network, the Kids Health Alliance at Sick Kids Hospital, which would strive to improve emergency care for children at hospitals across the province.

The Liberal government also promised a new program to improve access to breast pumps for mothers of babies born prematurely.

More than $100 million will also be invested over the next three years in supporting people with dementia and those who care for them, and an additional $20 million this year for respite care.

That $120 million investment would build off the 2016 funding announcement for unpaid caregivers for seniors, those with dementia and other home care patients to provide personal support or nursing support in the home.

An additional $58 million in funding has also been earmarked for long-term care home residents.

The budget contained details of Wynne’s recently announced Fair Housing Plan, which aims to slow skyrocketing home price growth in Toronto and southern Ontario by, among other things, introducing a 15 per cent tax on non-resident home buyers and adding measures meant to boost the province’s housing supply.

However, housing starts are projected to decline in 2018, according to the government’s own projections in the budget.

Despite the budget’s heavy focus on parents, children and youth, there was but a fleeting mention of the opioid crisis that’s hitting Ontarian families across the province.

The government devoted roughly a page to opioid addiction, recalling its strategy of boosting access to anti-overdose medication naxalone and adding supervised injection services.
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