Call to abolish prescription charges
Health Minister Michael McGimpsey came under growing pressure today to completely abolish prescription charges in Northern Ireland - almost a year after making the issue one of his top priorities.
The minister announced this morning that medicine charges will not be going up in line with inflation this year and will instead be frozen at £6.85 per item.
While the move has been welcomed, Northern Ireland is still paying among the highest prescription charges in the UK, second only to England.
The abolition of prescription charges was one of the first issues Mr McGimpsey addressed in the Assembly last May when he took over as Health Minister. He had previously commended the Belfast Telegraph's 'Prescriptions: Free For All' campaign which is calling for charges to be scrapped by the Assembly.
Prescription charges were also one of the key issues his Ulster Unionist Party vowed to address in its Assembly election manifesto last year.
Mr McGimpsey set up a review team last May to look into the impact of doing away with charges on patients and the Health Service. He revealed this morning that he has now received a report from the review team and is considering its recommendations.
Announcing that charges are to be frozen, he did not rule out a complete scrapping in future.
"Last year, I requested a review into the abolition of prescription charges in Northern Ireland. I have now received the report from the review group, and am currently considering a range of options for the future of prescription charges," he said.
"In the interim, I can reassure the public that I have frozen prescription charges and there will be no increase at this time
"It is vital that those who need medication aren't compelled to pay higher costs; an increase in prescription charges could deter some people from having their prescriptions dispensed, either in part or entirely."
The Belfast Telegraph launched its campaign last year to call on the Assembly to scrap charges or at least overhaul the out-dated list of exempt conditions.
Exempt conditions currently include diabetes and epilepsy, but not other chronic illnesses such as cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and asthma.
Macmillan Cancer Support has campaigned strongly on the issue on behalf of cancer patients.
The charity's general manager in Northern Ireland, Heather Monteverde, said: "We are encouraged by this latest development but we look forward to a day when no cancer patient in Northern Ireland will have to face the tough decision of whether they can afford to pay for their prescriptions as part of their treatment."
Alliance Party health spokesman Kieran McCarthy said the minister "had not gone far enough".
"We would hope that the day when prescriptions are free for everyone in Northern Ireland is not too far off," he said.
"It really is a tax on the sick and the sooner we get it abolished the better. It is unbelievable and unacceptable that cancer patients must pay for their prescriptions."
Northern Ireland is lagging behind Wales, where charges were scrapped last year, and Scotland where the price was dropped to £5 per item as part of plans to eventually scrap them.
A single prescription item currently costs £6.85 in Northern Ireland, with a four-month prescription pre-payment certificate (PPC) costing £35.85 and a 12-month PPC costing £98.70.