Free NHS prescriptions is a policy that should be kept under review

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
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The removal of charges for prescriptions in Northern Ireland in 2010 was a popular measure that had cross-party backing.

The system for charging had become complicated and unwieldy.

It also seemed contradictory and unfair in some of its rules as to who was entitled to free scripts and who was not.

Furthermore, collecting money for prescriptions added a layer of administration and bureaucracy and thus expense.

The overall cost to the NHS of prescriptions was relatively small compared to its overall budget.

But there is, nonetheless, a case to be made that abolition was the wrong thing to do.

It has resulted in a rise in the number of prescriptions.

It has also led to situations such as people seeking free prescriptions for medication such as aspirin that costs very little in supermarkets.

No-one would want elderly people to have to pay for their medication, or people with major health conditions that require large amounts of expensive medication.

However, it is sensible always to keep under review how we spend our precious NHS budget, given some of the pressing concerns on the service. In England, for example, the cost of a prescription is now £9.

Plenty of people in Northern Ireland who could easily afford paying for occasional prescriptions are uneasy at the fact that they are not contributing to the cost of their drugs.

The former DUP health minister Edwin Poots has an interesting proposal that pharmacies install a box where patients can contribute voluntarily. He formerly floated the idea of small payments for scripts, of less than 50p,

The lead civil servant at the department of Health, Richard Pengelly, thinks the debate around prescription charges should be reopened. So it should.

We might decide to keep them free, but the pros and cons of that approach need to be periodically reviewed.