Cost of free NHS prescriptions soars by £18m

Prescription charges were abolished by the SNP during the party's first term in office. Picture:Julie Howden

Prescription charges were abolished by the SNP during the party's first term in office. Picture:Julie Howden

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The bill for free NHS prescriptions has shot up by nearly £19 million in April to July compared to the previous year, official figures have revealed.

Prescription charges were abolished by the SNP during their first term in office but criticisms have been made over the spiralling costs of the policy.

It is cheaper to treat people early and keep them out of hospital than to intervene later on when their health has deteriorated

Dr Jean Turner

The Scottish health service saw a 3 per cent rise in the cost of paying for free medicines and the cost per item has also increased this quarter to £10.46 from £9.83 per item in the first quarter of 2014-15.

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw warned the policy was taking away resources from frontline services and providing help to wealthy patients who did not need it.

Mr Carlaw MSP said: “This steep increase has occurred at a time when inflation is at zero, and that has to be explained.

“The fact is a considerable amount of money could be saved by not handing out prescriptions to those who can well afford them.

“The money saved from that could be reinvested where it’s really needed, not least by hiring 1,000 extra nurses and midwives.That would take the strain off staff and ensure a better experience for patients across Scotland.”

Prescription charges apply to all patients in England except children and the elderly but the rule was abolished in Scotland in 2011.

The policy was defended by campaigners who said it was cheaper for the NHS in the long term to help patients to treat their symptoms early.

Dr Jean Turner, patron of the Scotland Patients Association, said: “I think one expects prescriptions to rise because we can prescribe for more conditions than we ever could before.

“Prescription charges were always rising in the past but there were close checks on how much you were prescribing and how it compared to other doctors and health boards.”

Dr Turner added: “There is always rogue prescribing but I do think the main reason for the rise must be that we are living longer.

“It’s an example of how we have become victim’s of our own success.”

Free medicines led to fewer health inequalities and encouraged patients to take their medicines for longstanding conditions such as asthma, said Dr Turner.

She added: “It is cheaper to treat people early and keep them out of hospital than to intervene later on when their health has deteriorated and requires time in hospital.”

Ministers defended the policy, linking the rise in costs for prescriptions to the shift from treating patients in hospital to delivering more tailored care at home or in a community setting.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The reported increase in cost of prescribing in primary care reflects the shift of treating more patients in the community and the increased use of expensive specialist medicines, traditionally reserved for hospital, for treating patients closer to home.

“These new treatments deliver better outcomes for patients and, although expensive, have been determined to be value for money by the NHS.

“However the NHS is always looking at opportunities to work with pharmaceutical companies to reduce the costs of drugs.”

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