Free prescriptions could be scrapped by the end of the year as the Health Minister tries to find enough money to pay for cancer drugs.
In June the Belfast Telegraph revealed Edwin Poots was considering reintroducing prescription charges to cover the cost of medication for a range of conditions, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, arthritis, Crohn's disease and colitis.
A Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) spokeswoman said proposals are at an early stage, but any fee would be “of a much smaller scale” than the £7.40 people pay in England.
She said while no decision has been made on prescription charges, they could be in place before the end of the the year “subject to approval by various parties”.
Former Health Minister Michael McGimpsey criticised any move to bring back charges which he axed in April last year.
“I took the view that prescription charges were a tax on the sick and we had strong evidence which showed people deferred buying prescriptions if they weren’t exempt from paying,” he said.
The DHSSPS spokeswoman said Mr Poots is keen to address the current disparity which means some drugs available to patients in England and Wales are not available to patients here.
“The minister has expressed concern about the ability of patients in Northern Ireland to access potentially life-enhancing drugs for certain conditions such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and rheumatoid arthritis,” she said.
“The minister is currently looking at ways in which he can raise revenue to support the use of new treatments and improve access to these drugs. One possible option could be some form of administrative or other fee relating to the receipt of prescriptions.”
She said studies have shown that those who can afford to are not opposed to making a contribution towards prescriptions.
She added: “Those who were previously exempt from prescription charges would not be expected to pay anything and it is expected that any small fee considered would be of a much smaller scale than the Department of Health charges for prescriptions in England.”
However, Dr Brian Dunn, chair of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland GP committee, warned that any review of the prescription system must be fair to all patients.
“You have to either make everyone exempt or make everyone pay a small charge,” he said.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph in June, Health Minister Edwin Poots revealed free prescriptions could be axed to help health bosses cover the cost of life-saving cancer drugs. He said the free prescription system has been “abused”. He explained: “I want to look at the types of drugs on prescription, painkillers can be bought for a few pence and we are paying pharmacists to dispense those on |prescription. It does not stack up.”