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Plea to keep prescriptions drugs free as poll shows charges would unfairly hit long-term ill

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 03/11/2015

Mother-of-four Karen Rennie (35) lives with four long-term conditions
Mother-of-four Karen Rennie (35) lives with four long-term conditions

Nearly half of people living with a long-term illness fear the return of prescription charges in Northern Ireland, new research has revealed.

Two leading charities claim that paying for treatment will place an unfair burden on the sick and disabled - and it won't save the health service money in the long run.

The British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland (BHF NI) and the MS Society's Keep Us Well campaign are now calling on Health Minister Simon Hamilton and the Executive to end the uncertainty and commit to keeping free prescriptions.

One in three people here lives with at least one long-term condition. But in February the Department of Health launched a consultation on the individual funding request process. This is the current process for accessing unapproved specialist drugs - but has been described by some medics as "too complex".

The consultation proposed that prescription charges could be brought back to pay for these drugs out of a specialist medicines fund. However, a survey of people here with long-term conditions revealed:

  • Just under half of people living with a long-term condition say they would worry about the cost if prescription charges were reintroduced here.
  • 40% of people living with a long-term condition might sometimes prioritise other costs before their medication.
  • 61% said they thought it would affect their ability to manage their condition.

BHF NI head Jayne Murray said the uncertainty around prescription charges is causing great fear among the thousands of people living with long-term illness.

"People are already worried about their household budgets as it is and those living with a long-term condition are often faced with substantial extra costs," she said.

"Not only do prescription charges place an unfair burden on people living with long-term conditions, but also their introduction is a false economy. Failure to take preventative medication such as statins and to manage existing conditions well is likely to lead to far greater costs for the health service and the public purse in the longer term."

Patricia Gordon, the director of the MS Society in Northern Ireland, said: "Medication is not a luxury for people living with a long-term conditions such as MS. It is as vital a part of their treatment as seeing a specialist or receiving physiotherapy.

"Introducing prescription charges in Northern Ireland would be a backward step and would add further worry to many people already facing cuts to disability benefits.

"It is time for the Stormont Executive to end the confusion and make a firm commitment to the thousands of people in Northern Ireland living with a long-term condition that they won't face prescription charges now or in the future."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The consultation on the evaluation of the individual funding request process, which ended on May 8, 2015, sought views on the reintroduction of prescription charges to support the establishment of a new specialist medicines fund. Responses to that consultation are currently in the final stages of analysis by officials."

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Fees would be devastating for my family

Karen Rennie (35), from Randalstown, lives with two heart conditions, as well as multiple sclerosis and Raynaud’s disease, which affects the blood supply to certain parts of the body, usually the fingers and toes.

The mother-of-four also suffers from a headache disorder, and takes up to 27 tablets each day.

“I was 29 years old and had a busy career working as a nurse in A&E when I was diagnosed with MS. I wasn’t able to return to work because I had some cognitive problems and, working in such a busy and responsible role in A&E, I didn’t feel safe staying in my job.

“In 2013 I was about to start a new medication for my MS and, before I did, I had to have my heart monitored. I discovered then that I had the left ventricle branch block. Soon after that I became pregnant with my twin girls, who were born nine weeks early. My four girls had their hearts checked and doctors discovered my six-year-old and my twins all have holes in their hearts.

“If prescription charges were to be introduced it would be devastating for us. I would have to move household budgets around to account for it, and money is tight as it is with four children. My health would suffer because of it and I wouldn’t want my family to suffer, too. It is families like ours who have things tight as it is, but wouldn’t meet the threshold for free prescriptions, who would end up struggling to pay this. I need my tablets to look after my health so I can care for my family.”

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