£14m bill for handing out prescription medicines you can buy in any chemist’s
A scheme which issues over-the-counter medicines for free on prescription has cost the health service here more than £14m over the last five years.
The Minor Ailments Scheme was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2008 to enable patients to get free advice and medicine for a defined list of illnesses from a pharmacist, without needing a GP prescription.
It provides free prescriptions for a variety of everyday conditions such as ear wax, cold sores and mouth ulcers.
It also provides treatments for other ailments including diarrhoea, head lice, Athlete's Foot and fungal infection free of charge.
The initiative cost the health service here £14,196,513 from 2013 to 2017. The sum comprises £6,366,089 for the cost of medicines supplied, and £7,830,424 for fees paid to community pharmacies providing the service.
The biggest spend on a single item was on Hedrin lotion for the treatment of head lice, which has cost the health service here £1,201,495 over the past five years, not including service fees paid to pharmacies.
A 50ml bottle of the lotion is available online for £4.49.
As of February 1, the cost of one bottle to the NHS was £4.21, excluding pharmacy fees.
Shockingly, the NHS spent almost £150,000 on olive oil ear drops, available for just over £2 at several chemists.
Each 10ml bottle cost the health service here £2.55, excluding service fees.
And Lamisil AT gel for Athlete's Foot cost the public purse £138,280 over the same five-year period.
A 15g tube of the medication costs £4.99 from one online pharmacy, yet the NHS forks out £4.73 for each pack of the gel before pharmacy service fees are added.
A Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) spokesperson said they could not provide the cost of service fees paid to pharmacies for each item, as these were "tiered and depend on the number of items supplied through the scheme".
They added: "The service fee reduces as the number of items being supplied through the scheme increases."
The spokesperson said the aim of the Minor Ailments Scheme was to "relieve pressure on GP practices".
Asked why the health service was providing these items free of charge on prescription, rather than urging patients to pay for them, the spokesperson added: "All of the items that are available through the Minor Ailments Scheme are items that are available free of charge on prescription through GP practices.
"The aim of the scheme is not to provide free medicines to people who would otherwise pay for their medication but to reduce pressure on GP services by displacing activity from GP practices for this limited range of conditions to a community pharmacy led service where the patient receives advice on the treatment of the condition from the pharmacist and, if appropriate, a medication supply is made by the pharmacist."
The HSCB also said it had produced a range of guidance and resources which "aim to encourage self care by patients and to buy medication as appropriate from their community pharmacy".
UUP Health spokesperson Roy Beggs said it could be time to review the provision of low-cost over-the-counter remedies on prescription.
He commented: "Routine items which can be purchased for low prices in any typical supermarket should probably be removed from the list. NHS limited resources should be used to treat patients."