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kevin's picture
Joined: 09/03/2009

There are fears that free prescriptions could be costing the health service up to £20m a year because many patients are abusing the scheme, an assembly member has warned.

A Stormont Health Committee heard the cost of the service has risen rapidly since prescription charges were initially abolished in April.

Chairman Jim Wells said more and more people are availing of free medicines. Although the majority of prescriptions are legitimate some patients are using the service unnecessarily, he warned.

Mr Wells said he has heard of patients receiving items that they would normally have paid for before the free service, including products like sun tan lotion.

"We asked the committee to look into this issue because initially we were told the cost of free prescriptions was going to be £13m," Mr Wells added.

"I have heard from sources that this has increased dramatically to £20m.

"I understand people are getting free prescriptions for things they would otherwise have had to buy. We need to look at this and review it as soon as possible."

Prescriptions charges were abolished in April. The move was broadly welcomed as something that benefited everyone.

It was expected it would cost the health service £13m but Mr Wells said that figure is on the rise and is calling on the Health Minister Michael McGimpsey to re-examine the scheme.

He added: "We are going to have to examine ways of saving money everywhere. Given what is probably ahead of us next week in the budget we have to look at every pound spent in the health service and see are we getting the best value."

'Cost effective'

There are concerns the Minor Ailments Scheme, introduced in 2005, where certain over the counter medicines are made free of charge, is also contributing to costs.

However, community pharmacist Dr Terry Maguire said he believes it is "cost effective".

"The scheme only consists of cheap medicines and initially it was set up for people who couldn't afford to pay for medicines and didn't pay prescription charges," he added.

"Since the Minister took away the charges clearly everyone now has access. Of course we will all say we will be more sensible and realise that when we do access the service it costs the health service. But overall it is cost effective."

The Department of Health said it is keeping the additional costs associated with free prescribing under review.

It says on average, the volume of prescriptions normally rise by 5 to 6% each year and another consideration is the rising numbers of older people with long term conditions and the impact of the recession on people's health.<

kevin's picture
Joined: 09/03/2009

Northern Ireland spends more on medicines, including sleeping tablets, anti-depressants and obesity drugs than anywhere else in the UK.

Figures obtained by the BBC also show NI is second highest in Europe for dispensing anti-depressants.

The Health and Social Care Board said the figures showed changes are needed in the way drugs are administered and the public must expect to receive cheaper alternatives.

Medicines in NI cost £400m a year.

That averages at £224 per person, over £60 more than what is spent in England.

Start Quote

Our aim is to continue to provide a good service, treating patients to the best of our ability but by using less branded medicines which are of still high quality”

End Quote Joe Brogan Health and Social Care Board<

The BBC has also learned that NI prescribes double the amount of sleeping tablets than in England, Scotland and Wales.

According to the Health and Social Care Board, money must be saved and therefore less expensive drugs must be used.

Head of Pharmacy, Joe Brogan, said the public's health would not be compromised.

Cheaper alternatives

"I can assure the public that will not happen," he said. "Our aim is to continue to provide a good service, treating patients to the best of our ability but by using less branded medicines which are of still high quality.

"The public will not notice any difference."

Among the factors contributing to the high spend are prescriptions for illnesses still associated with the troubles and using expensive brands to treat them.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said the troubles had not only impacted on the current generation but also their children.

RCP Policy Officer Dr Maria O'Kane said: "We would hope that with the continued development of psychiatric treatments, that the uses of these medicines and their costs would diminish, but that is not going to happen overnight or even in years to come."

Start Quote

The committee has consistently called upon the board to promote the use of generic drugs. They cost a fraction of the branded alternative and are equally effective. ”

End Quote Jim Wells Chairman NI Health Committe<

At this stage, it appears the board will overspend its budget for medicines. However, there are plans to make up to £41m of savings by March next year.

According to the board, people will be prescribed fewer branded medicines and instead receive generic or cheaper alternatives for example:

  • By using alternatives to Lipitor and Crestor, which are both prescribed for treating high cholesterol, Northern Ireland could make annual savings of around £7m.
  • Instead of treating patients who have osteoporosis with a branded drug such as Actonel, alternatives would result in savings of around £3m.

The Chair of the Assembly's Health Committee, Jim Wells, has welcomed the move.

Money saved

"The committee has consistently called upon the board to promote the use of generic drugs," he said.

"They cost a fraction of the branded alternative and are equally effective."

Local health charities said any money saved should be ploughed back into the service and in particular into medicines.

Liz Atkinson, from the Ulster Cancer Foundation said patients in Northern Ireland must be able to avail of the same quality of drugs available to cancer patients in England.

"In England, David Cameron has made available a cancer fund pot of around 200 million pounds a year," she said.

"As far as we know that money is not available here in NI. If savings could be made on the local medicines bill that money could be put into our own cancer pot and patients could access newer cancer drugs and quicker."<