The Health Minister has given his strongest indication yet that prescription charges will return to Northern Ireland.
Edwin Poots told the Assembly yesterday he will probably launch a public consultation on the issue some time in the New Year.
He was discussing the challenges facing the Department of Health in paying for expensive cancer drugs and treatments for other chronic conditions, such as arthritis and Crohn’s disease, when he made the comments.
“These drugs will need to be paid for in future years and that is the reality which we face, and in this context I'm considering a range of options how this might be done — including the potential reintroduction of some prescription charges,” he said. “Such a decision would of course be subject to public consultation.”
However, doctors’ leaders have hit out at the suggestion prescription charges could return to Northern Ireland — which comes at a time Mr Poots is also considering introducing car park charges at health facilities.
Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association’s (BMA) GP committee in Northern Ireland, said the health service spends on average less than £4 on each patient every week.
“It has been BMA policy for a long time that prescription charges are not a good idea,” he explained. “We feel they penalise the sick and those most disadvantaged and vulnerable.”
Prescription charges were scrapped in April 2010 under the former Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey. At the time, the Ulster Unionist minister said the introduction of free prescriptions would be cost neutral.
Free prescriptions were introduced here in April 2010 — three years after they were put in place in Wales and a year before they came into force in Scotland. In England patients still pay for prescriptions — the cost rose earlier this year to £7.40 per item. In June, the Belfast Telegraph revealed Edwin Poots was considering re-introducing prescription charges.