40 million items a year under free prescriptions in Northern Ireland

Prescription charges
Prescription charges

Almost 40 million medical items were prescribed in Northern Ireland last year — a significant increase since the abolition of charges in 2010, the News Letter can reveal.

The latest figures — which do not include medicines which are prescribed in hospitals — show a gradual increase in both the number of prescriptions and number of individual items issued since Stormont decided to make do away with charging.

Over the last five years 187 million items have been dispensed in the Province — to just 1.8 million people.

The figure amounts to an average of 22 items prescribed each year for every man, woman and child living in Northern Ireland.

A DUP politician calling for the re-introduction of a charge said that the money raised could be used to provide drugs, particularly cancer treatments, not currently available on the NHS.

East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell received the details in a written Assembly answer this week.

“Between 2010-14 the department’s figures show a 10.3 per cent growth in the number of prescriptions presented and 12.3 per cent growth in the number of items dispensed.

“In 2014 alone there were 22.2 million prescriptions written for 39.6 million items. This is a startling figure given the 1.8 million population of Northern Ireland,” he said.

Mr Campbell said it was now clear there was an opportunity to create a specialist drugs fund for a nominal charge to the individual — either 30p, 50p or £1.

“At those rates you could see a drug fund in the region of £6.6m, £11.1m or £22m per annum assuming a similar number of prescriptions being issued.

“Such a unique funding system would have significant potential to deliver better care to thousands of people in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Campbell added: “Of course anyone who was a regular user of prescriptions would buy a season ticket probably around £20 or £25 for the year.”

In June last year, the then health minister Edwin Poots said a charge of up to £25 a year person could pay for the sought after cancer drugs.

However, he said at the time: “I need the support of other political parties to make it happen.”

The DUP Assemblyman added that a paper had been submitted to the first minister and deputy first minister “over a year ago on a prescription charge to buy cancer drugs and specialist drugs” and that it was not the first minister who was “holding it back”.

Sinn Fein, the party of the deputy first minister, is strongly opposed to the reintroduction of prescription charges. In response to Mr Poots’ 2014 comments, the chair of the British Medical Association Northern Ireland GPs’ committee Dr Tom Black said: “Ideally GPs would prefer to continue with the system where taxation provides the funding for healthcare and prescriptions.

“GPs in Northern Ireland don’t want to become tax collectors for the health service.”

Commenting on Gregory Campbell’s response to the latest figures, Dr Black said the BMA remains opposed to a charge.

“There has been a consistent rise in prescriptions every year and this is in part reflective of an ageing population with increasingly complex needs. The BMA believe that prescriptions should be free at the point of need and funded through general taxation. The alternative would be that vulnerable patients could be put off accessing medication due to cost.”

Dr Black added: “A fund for high cost drugs isn’t a particularly good idea because all drugs should be judged on their own merits by balancing efficacy with cost to the NHS.

“The overall cost of drugs in NI has actually been decreasing due to the hard work of GPs and our drug budget would be affordable if TYC (Transforming your care) was implemented.”