Prescription fees pledge given guarded welcome by health campaigners
Health campaigners have given a cautious welcome to Health Minister Simon Hamilton's pledge not to reintroduce prescription charges before the 2016 election - although he hinted they might come after it.
Jayne Murray, head of the British Heart Foundation in Northern Ireland, and Patricia Gordon, director of the MS Society, described the reprieve as "a very positive development".
However, the charities jointly urged all parties to make a commitment ahead of the 2016 election to protect those living with long term conditions from prescription charges.
"We recognise there is a funding crisis in our health service, but we strongly believe that charging people with long term conditions for their medication is not going to solve it," they said.
"Medication is not a luxury. It is a vital part of effectively managing a long-term condition. It's important that reintroducing prescription charges isn't suggested every time we hit a financial crisis."
But Simon Hamilton yesterday warned that failing to bring back prescription charges in Northern Ireland could have consequences for seriously ill patients.
He told the Assembly he did not envisage the controversial charges being brought back during the current political mandate, but said those relying on expensive new medication may lose out.
He said: "I don't think, given the lack of political consensus, there will be any reintroduction in terms of charges, certainly in my time as minister. But there will be consequences of that. Not having prescription charges; not having income that it will raise, is not something that would be without consequences in terms of paying for some of the very expensive new drugs and treatments out there."
Mr Hamilton was speaking during Assembly Question Time.
Prescription charges were abolished here in 2010 and cost the Department of Health over half a billion pounds a year.
In February, former health minister Jim Wells announced plans to raise between £5m and £10m through "season ticket" type charging which could subsidise a specialist medicines fund.
The proposal, which was put out for public consultation, included a charge of about 50 pence or £1 or an annual subscription of £20 or £25, with revenue generated being used to buy drugs which are too expensive or too specific to be licensed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence for general use.
A campaign to stop the reintroduction of prescription charges has been ongoing.