My own position on prescription charges – and I write here in a purely personal capacity – has been slightly but understandably misunderstood. I am not particularly in favour of their return; what I argue is that, if people want more public spending, they have to be honest about where they are going to raise that money. If that does include Prescription Charges, they should say so; if it doesn’t, they should say where else it will come from.
What I am clear about is that if Prescription Charges do return in NI, they should return taking account of the basic principle of the NHS, which boils down to the point that no citizen should be penalised for happening to have a condition. I have a friend who has a huge range of allergies and thus often requires allergy relief pills; I have no objection to contributing to those as much as she does – it’s not her fault! Likewise, people with asthma did not ask to have asthma and thus should not pay more for access to the Health Service than the rest of us (which would effectively be the case if they had to pay for every prescription). There is a huge range of conditions which lead to greater prevalence of other conditions or diseases, and again those with such conditions should not be penalised, in effect, for happening to have them.
We do have to recognise that not only do Free Prescriptions lead to a loss of Health funding which has to be recouped from elsewhere, but also to more prescriptions (because they are now free) and more strain on the system – as evidenced by the 25% rise in prescriptions written in NI since they became free. On the other hand, it could be argued that Free Prescriptions are a basic aspect of a Health Service free at point of access. After all, if you pay for prescriptions, why not for surgery, or even just medical advice?
Regardless, it is clear to me that people with long-term conditions have life hard enough without being penalised further by having to pay for prescriptions, even if it is only up to £25 per year. That is more than someone like me, currently without any, is ever likely to pay. Whether free prescriptions remain for the greater populace is an even debate for me; but there is no doubt that free prescriptions should remain in place, universally, for people with long-term conditions.