By GILLIAN SLADE on October 22, 2020.

Alberta Health Services is planning to have patients pay for their non-urgent medication while in hospital. In this file photo you can see the emergency department entrance to Medicine Hat Regional Hospital.–FILE PHOTO

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Alberta Health Services is considering charging patients for non-urgent medications in its own hospitals, those of Covenant Health and also clinics.

“The process under consideration would be for cases where there is no urgent medical need for a medication to be administered in a hospital or AHS/Covenant Health clinic,” said Kerry Williamson, executive director of issues management for AHS. “Those patients would potentially be referred to a more appropriate community setting, such as a family physician’s office, pharmacy or other clinic, if available in their local area.”

The proposal under consideration was leaked to media. It was supposed to be implemented in March this year before the pandemic hit.

It is called Standardizing Access to Medication for Ambulatory Patients (STAMP). There would be rules for AHS to determine when it would absorb the cost and when it would be charged to patients. Some drugs would no longer be offered to patients without them paying for it.

This would likely affect those receiving cancer treatment, Crohn’s treatment, seniors in long-term care and potentially those in palliative care.

The idea is for the patient to purchase the required medication at a pharmacy where some may have private medical coverage for prescriptions. They may then have to also pay a clinic to provide the required infusion either in a doctor’s office or a clinic.

This would affect those who are not admitted to hospital but are being treated as an outpatient, ambulatory patient clinic or emergency department.

The leaked document claims the move could “save” AHS about $2.3 million a year.

“The government of Alberta needs to ensure that necessary medications are available to all Albertans, regardless of income or wealth,” said Drew Barnes MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat.

Barnes notes that government revenue has collapsed, and that health care spending is more than 50 per cent of government’s annual budget. Alberta is more than $100 billion in debt and it is incumbent on the government to strive for efficiency with every tax dollar, he says.

Michaela Glasgo, MLA for Brooks-Medicine Hat, did not respond to a request for comment before the deadline.

AHS says patients will still be covered in urgent situations.

“Patients requiring urgent medication administration for a medical emergency or to stabilize symptoms will receive medications from the facility at no charge, as they always have,” said Williamson.

“Patients without the ability to pay will never be denied access to medically-necessary medications. In situations where the patient is unable to afford their medication, AHS will consider the patient’s circumstances on a case-by-case basis.”

Friends of Medicare says this is an agenda to off load costs on to patients without thought of the long-term impact, including additional costs when the patient’s condition deteriorates and has to spend more time in hospital.

“This is about expanding the role of private insurance to decide who receives coverage and who does not. Our health care is supposed to be available to all of us based on our need, not our ability to pay. This is a time when that fundamental principle of our medicare is clearly not being honoured,” said executive director Sandra Azocar.