Edwin Poots: Put box in every chemist for voluntary prescription charge

Edwin Poots said a voluntary contribution scheme 'could perhaps bring in several million pounds per year'
Edwin Poots said a voluntary contribution scheme 'could perhaps bring in several million pounds per year'

A former Northern Ireland health minister has suggested introducing voluntary prescription charges to help pay for expensive drugs.

Edwin Poots, who was Northern Ireland health minister from 2011 until 2014, believes putting a box in every pharmacy could raise a surprising amount of money from those happy to pay for their prescriptions.

He was speaking after the government announced the cost of a prescription in England is to rise to £9 – an increase of 20p.

Prescription charges were abolished in Northern Ireland by Michael McGimpsey, who told the News Letter yesterday that it represented a “tax on the sick”.

The former Ulster Unionist MLA said there was little financial benefit to the charges and stressed that health services here did not suffer when they were scrapped.

“If you’re sick and you need medicine, you should not need to pay these charges which were a tax. They were a tax on the sick. I was able to do it (abolish the charges) and it was cost neutral.

“That was one of many things that I brought in, while having waiting times under control. At A&E we had 95% of people seen within four hours – now it’s closer to 60%”

Richard Pengelly, the top civil servant at the Department of Health, meanwhile, recently suggested the debate around prescription charges in Northern Ireland should be reopened.

Speaking at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster last month, he said: “Sometimes charging isn’t about money, it’s about influencing behaviour. I think one of the issues is when we receive goods free we don’t always appreciate that there is a cost associated with that good.

“I think there is debate that needs to be had there.”

DUP MLA Mr Poots, who succeeded Mr McGimpsey as health minister, believes one solution could be ‘voluntary’ charges.

“You wouldn’t reintroduce the old system again. There is no appetite for it,” he said.

“But if you are looking at ways of paying for medications for life-limiting conditions which can be prohibitively expensive, one of the ways you could look at paying for that might be through voluntary prescription charges for those quite able and willing to pay. My suspicion is that a donation box in every pharmacy could perhaps bring in several million pounds per year.”