£30m surge in cost of free prescriptions

The Conservatives said the free prescriptions policy was 'unsustainable'. Picture: TSPL

The Conservatives said the free prescriptions policy was 'unsustainable'. Picture: TSPL

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THE cost of delivering the SNP’s government’s flagship policy of free NHS prescriptions increased by more than £30 million, new findings on health service spending showed.

Scotland’s NHS paid 3.5 per cent more to cover the costs of free medicines between April and December for 2014-15, than it did in the same period in the previous year, with the bill for the policy now standing at nearly £900m.

There were also 76.3 million medicines prescribed in the first nine months of 2014-15 – an increase of 1.7 million items – or 2.3 per cent – on that of the year before.

However, the latest figures revealed a surge in the take-up of prescribed medicines since the SNP ended the fees in 2011, when about 67 million items were handed out during the last nine months of the charging regime.

The SNP phased out the fees during its first term in office, after coming to power in 2007 on a platform of scrapping prescription charges, which stood at £6.85 per item eight years ago in Scotland.

The Conservatives said the recent sharp rise in NHS spending on free prescriptions showed the SNP’s policy was “unsustainable” and starving the NHS of much needed cash for frontline services.

However, Scotland’s health secretary Shona Robison hit back and said Scottish patients benefitted from not being hit by charges for non-exempt patients in England that are due to rise to £8.20 today.

Ms Robison said: “Free prescriptions in Scotland mean that no-one is forced to decide which prescribed medicine they can afford and which they will have to go without.

“This is the right thing to do, and, unlike in England, means that those living with a long-term condition are not facing the on-going financial penalty of prescription charges just because they are unwell.”

Prescription charges were first introduced in the early 1950s – a few years after the creation of the UK’s NHS – with non-exempt patients north and south of the Border forced to pay for medicines.

Pensioners and children are among those who do not pay for their prescriptions in England.

However, Ms Robison stated that the SNP would continue to use Holyrood devolved powers over health to deliver the policy, which Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has pledged not to reverse.

Ms Robison added: “It remains our firm belief that healthcare should be free at the point of need – the founding principle of the NHS.”

However, Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said free prescriptions overwhelmingly benefited high earners, as he claimed the system was open to abuse.

He said: “These figures illustrate why the SNP’s free prescription policy is just unsustainable.

“It makes no sense for those who are willing and able to pay for prescriptions, such as MSPs and higher-rate taxpayers, to receive them courtesy of ordinary taxpayers.”

Dr Jean Turner, executive director of the Scotland Patients’ Association, warned that a return to charging people for medicines would harm those on low incomes.

She said: “The cost down south for patients such as those with asthmatic conditions for example adds up and is very expensive for those with small budgets.”

SNP MSP Bob Doris, the deputy convenor of Holyrood’s health committee, said: “The SNP is utterly committed to keeping Scotland’s NHS free and in public hands and in government we have upheld that principle by abolishing prescription charges and ending the tax on ill-health they represent.”

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