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Prescription charges shouldn't be linked to the availability of medicines


Liam Clarke

Liam Clarke

Liam Clarke

I suffer from cancer myself and am receiving no treatment at present. There has been no suggestion that I should take any of the drugs which are denied us here.

And thanks, I am not feeling too bad on it.

Yet my condition does give me a perspective on this. I don't mind paying a prescription levy to provide for drugs for others and I'd like them to be available if I ever need them myself. I have even put myself down for consideration for experimental treatments. It seems worth taking a risk on something that is not fully tested yet, but looks promising.

This scheme of Jim Wells' is better than restricting the availability of treatment. The Health Minister has at least had the courage to make a move, but somehow it smacks of gimmickry.

Treatments for cancer and other conditions should be supplied when they are likely to be both helpful and cost-effective, or tried experimentally on volunteers like me where the effectiveness is not yet certain. They should not be given out because we think we can raise enough on prescription charges to cover the bill.

The calculation may be that people will be afraid of seeming selfish and heartless if they complain about the return of charges.

In England they charge for prescriptions but 90% of people still get them free. Here, the charges only used to cover 3.5% of the actual costs of the medicines.

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The main defence for the charge is to stop people getting things they could buy over the counter on prescription and cut down on doctors' appointments for aspirin or bandages. That is why a flat rate is being proposed instead of all the previous exemptions for over 60s, the young and the chronically ill etc.

But a flat rate here - while the vast majority of English people would essentially be getting free prescriptions - would mean complaints from pensioners, disabled people, poverty groups and others. Legal action would be likely.

What we now need is a serious discussion of public finances, a debate on what taxes we are willing to pay and what support we will expect from the state.

Prescription medicines cost £377m here in 2012/13, and even at the old rate of £6.50, the charges only brought in something like £13m.

This all needs to be worked out as part of the consultation. Ideally, it will decouple the issues of prescription charges and cancer or other drug costs. There is a case for tackling prescription abuse with limitations on items covered. There is also an overwhelming argument for more life-saving drugs to be made available, but they are not the same case. Linking them is a mistake.

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