Free prescriptions cost Northern Ireland health service more than £1m per day
The cost of free prescriptions in Northern Ireland is running at more than £1million a day, it can be revealed.
Figures from the Department of Health show the total cost of free medication during the first 10 months of this year was more than £366m - an average of £1.2m every day.
The revelation comes after a Department of Finance briefing paper suggested reintroducing prescription charges as one of a series of measures to offset huge financial pressures.
But former Stormont Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, who abolished the fee in 2010, branded the proposal as nothing more than "creative accountancy", and slammed government officials for "trying to tax the sick".
He said: "The net gain of charges is actually very small because of the administration costs and the number of exemptions.
"The idea that there's big money in free prescriptions is nonsense.
"I was able to save £80million a year and I did it by moving away from branded to more generic drugs."
The former Ulster Unionist MLA said the only reason for the annual spike in the number of prescription items being dispensed - an increase of around 1m a year - is because doctors are issuing more.
"It's very complex, but ultimately a doctor only issues what a patient needs and those patients are mainly children and older people," he added.
"Clear evidence has shown that patients were going without medication when they had to pay for it."
Other proposals outlined in the budget preparation exercise include reintroducing means-testing for domiciliary and day care services and bringing in dental charges.
It also outlined plans to introduce non-urgent transport costs for schoolchildren, raise the cost of community meals by £2 to £3.50, and ensure all health trusts charge for car parking.
Mr McGimpsey insisted the real problem lies with the Department of Finance and not with those who are ill.
"They have made such a mess with money in Northern Ireland - the real poverty in all of this is how the block grant is managed," he said.
Based on the average daily cost of prescriptions, the bill for 2017 is likely to reach nearly £440m - £20m more than in 2014.
Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association's Northern Ireland GP committee, warned that reintroducing charges would only create "health inequality".
"Some people would be restricted from accessing health care," he said.
"One of the core principles of the NHS has always been that it is free at the point of delivery to ensure quality healthcare is available to all.
"It's much more sensible to take tax from the population as a whole to cover the cost than from individuals once they become sick."
Dr Black is also sceptical that the proposals would be effective in generating substantial revenue.
"Around 98% of my patients were still able to get their prescription for free under the previous payment system because of a huge number of exceptions," he said.
"It would cost a significant amount of money to set up the bureaucracy required to collect the money and soon enough we would be back in the same situation again."
The Department of Finance report warned it would be "potentially catastrophic" to divert future funding away from transforming the health service in order to "simply prop-up" the existing model.