Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey has announced his intention to abolish prescriptions charges in Northern Ireland.
The cost of a prescription will be reduced to only £3 per prescription in January 2009 and then will be free of charge by April 2010. Prepayment certificates will also come down in price, from £35.85 to £9 for four months and from £98.70 to £25 for 12 months until prescriptions are free.
Making the announcement at the Cancer Centre in Belfast City Hospital, the Health Minister said: "A cradle to grave health service, free at the point of delivery, is the founding principle of the NHS which was founded 60 years ago this year. It is a principle that I, and the entire population of Northern Ireland, wholeheartedly support.
"Yet for the majority of the last 60 years, people here have been forced to live with an inequitable and unjust system whereby one person's suffering is ranked above another. It is simply unacceptable that those who are ill should have to worry about finding money for vital drugs which they cannot afford. This is totally against the ethos of a health service which promises free health and social care to all.
The Minister said that in reaching his decision, which will be subject to the agreement of the Northern Ireland Executive, he had to carefully consider the consequences of any change to the current charging regime in Northern Ireland.
He continued: "A key consideration for me was the loss of around £13m income each year from prescription charges, and while it is only 3.5% of the total drugs bill, it is still a lot of money. It is used to fund vital health and social care services for everyone. I also had to take account of concerns over increased demand from the public who may be more likely to ask for medication if it is free of charge.
"After looking closely at the financial position with my officials, I have concluded that the cost of free prescriptions can be found within my existing budget and without impacting on any existing service."
To help ensure that the drugs bill does not rise unnecessarily, the Minster said he would be encouraging healthcare professionals to prescribe sensibly. He said: "I will also need the support of everyone in Northern Ireland to make this work and act responsibly with regard to demanding prescriptions.
The British Medical Association Northern Ireland has welcomed this move. Speaking on behalf of the Association, Dr Brian Dunn, Chairman of the NI GPs' Committee said: "This is a very positive step forward and all those patients in Northern Ireland who have found it very hard over the years to pay for their medication will welcome it - as does the BMA. It has been the Association's policy, since 2002, that prescriptions should be free to everyone.
"It is important that people needing medication are able to afford it and increasing levels of charging could put them at risk. Those patients with chronic and life threatening illnesses will particularly welcome this move towards free prescriptions because the financial benefit to them will be considerable. It also means these very vulnerable patients will at least have peace of mind knowing that they won't have the additional worry about being able to afford their vital medication."
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