Review needed of free prescriptions system in Northern Ireland
It should not be a great surprise that the cost of prescribed drugs in Northern Ireland is rising. An ageing population and new therapies are two major factors in pushing the bill up to £440m last year. But that does not mean there should not be a review into how the system of free prescriptions are working.
The bill is equal to one-tenth of the total health budget and that, by any standard, is a mighty figure. So can the rate at which it is being inflated - the bill rose by £30m between 2013 and 2015 - be slowed?
This newspaper has been consistent in its support of free prescriptions. It recognises that the system can be abused or that medicines can be prescribed too freely, or that patients may simply waste their medication by not finishing regimes.
But it must be for the greater good that people who need medication can - in most cases - obtain it at no upfront cost to themselves. That ensures lack of personal finance can never be a hindrance to receiving treatment. Free prescriptions underpin the foundation stone of the National Health Service - treatment free at the point of delivery.
Yet, things are never totally simple. There have been several well-chronicled cases of people in the province being denied life-prolonging or life-enhancing medication because it is not approved for free delivery on the NHS and the province does not have a special fund to finance such treatment, although it is available in other parts of the UK.
In 2012 it was reported that there were 22 cancer drugs which were not available to patients in Northern Ireland. Essentially, people were being denied vital medication because of where they lived, and where they would potentially die too soon.
The idea of postcode lotteries deciding who gets treatment and who doesn't is appalling to most people.
Putting a cash value on someone's life - or life expectancy - seems cynical and cruel, even if we admit that treatment does cost money, lots of it on occasion.
Perhaps we need to drill deeper into the prescription bill to see if the system is being run as effectively and efficiently as possible, and whether some medication currently being prescribed could not be bought more cheaply over the counter. Could a small charge make people more discriminating in their demands for prescribed medication?
This, however, is not an issue to be tackled in isolation, but rather as part of a wider discussion on funding the NHS.