Payne said it is important to keep exploring the idea of expanded coverage, but it isn’t the top priority. “It doesn’t matter if medications are free if there is no one to prescribe them,” Virani said. “And that’s where our biggest bottleneck is.” The province said that in the last fiscal year, 7,700 Albertans were prescribed opioid replacement therapy. Of those, 3,500 were covered by government plans at a total cost of $7.6 million. Preliminary data suggests the number of users is on pace to increase this year by at least 18 per cent. The province said it is difficult to predict the price tag of moving to universal coverage, but it could be as much as $35 million to pay for everyone in the province who needs the drugs. That includes people who are currently on employer-sponsored plans. Sandra Azocar, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Medicare, said she also has concerns with the government’s move, but doesn’t see a better alternative: “It does raise questions in the long term and we will be following up to make sure that nobody is left behind because they can’t afford these medications.” For those without coverage, methadone costs about $13 for a daily dose, most of which is the dispensing fee charged by pharmacists. That can add up to about $4,440 a year. Suboxone is more expensive and can reach about $12,000 a year, depending on the dosage needed. Alberta Health noted some people without employer or government drug benefits have the ability to purchase coverage through Alberta Blue Cross.

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