CALGARY -- A move to force people taking biological drugs to other clinically appropriate but cheaper alternatives will save tens of millions of dollars each year, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Thursday.

The switch, which will happen by July 1, 2020, means thousands of people on government-sponsored drug plans will have to start taking biosimilar medications. In May, British Columbia announced an annual savings of $96 million dollars by forcing its residents from biologic prescriptions to biosimilar medications.

The Alberta government says the policy change will result in up to $380 million in savings over the next four years. Biological costs make up about 19 per cent of the province’s drug plan budget, despite being provided to only two per cent of patients.

“Biosimilars meet both patient and health system needs by providing the same high-quality medications at a lower cost,” said Dr. John Esdaile, a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia.

But some say the government’s plan will have a negative impact on those who rely on biologic medication to treat diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

"If I could pick the patients I could switch, and be completely fine, I would be happy to support this policy," Dr. Remo Panaccione told CTV News Edmonton in November.

"If you're on the winning side and nothing happens, all is good," he said. "In inflammatory bowel disease, if you happen to be on the losing side — that has significant consequences."

Panaccione estimated between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of all patients on biologics would experience trouble switching to biosimilars, from losing response to medication and experiencing adverse effects, to relapsing.

The changes will not apply to pregnant women, children or patients who pay out of pocket or have private health insurance.