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Edwin Poots backs prescription fees to fund cancer drugs

By Steven Alexander

The health minister has hinted at bringing back prescription fees to plug the gap in funds needed to pay for cancer drugs not available in Northern Ireland.

Edwin Poots took to Twitter after the launch of the Equal Access campaign by Cancer Focus NI, which wants to end the postcode lottery for cancer patients needing certain drugs.

The DUP minister said an annual cap of £25 on prescription fees would mean cancer patients could get the specialist drugs.

There are nearly 40 cancer drugs available to patients in England that are not readily available to patients here. It has been suggested that bringing in a £3 prescription charge could support a £3m cancer drug fund.

Another proposal is that money could already be available in Northern Ireland to pay for the innovative new drugs through an agreement known as the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS). The PPRS agreement controls the prices of branded drugs sold to the health service.

Last night, Mr Poots (below) tweeted: "I support the establishment of a cancer/specialist drugs fund. I need the support of other political parties to make it happen. A small prescription fee with a maximum payment of £25 per year would acquire specialist cancer drugs for Northern Ireland."

The minister added that a paper was submitted to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness more than a year ago on a prescription charge to buy specialist drugs.

Mr Poots said it was not the first minister holding it back. And in another swipe at Sinn Fein, he claimed his department was facing a £160m gap between demand and funding and "can't afford new spending".

He said this was because more than £100m was being removed from Northern Ireland's budget due to the lack of welfare reform here. This refers to Sinn Fein's refusal to budge on implementing the Westminster reforms, which has led to the Treasury imposing financial penalties on Northern Ireland.

Last night, SDLP health spokesperson Fearghal McKinney said now that Mr Poots has backed a cancer drugs fund, he must publicly back the Equal Access campaign.

"In response to a question I have asked about the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme, the minister has revealed that his department has received over £9m in the last three years," he said.

"This money is for innovative new drugs and the public do not know where it has gone. Instead of opening a debate on prescription charges on social media, the minister must first clarify where this money is and whether it can be used to establish a cancer drugs fund here urgently."

Around £2.8m was returned through a scheme in the last financial year, but the department could not say where the funds were allocated as "the department does not collect it in this format".

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