Leader: Free prescriptions help better off at NHS expense

The greatest myth about the Scottish Government's flagship free prescriptions policy is that prescriptions are actually free.

Wales was the first part of the UK to make prescriptions free, in 2007. Northern Ireland followed in 2010.
Wales was the first part of the UK to make prescriptions free, in 2007. Northern Ireland followed in 2010.

There may be no direct cost to the individual receiving the drugs but they must be paid for somehow.

The current solution is for the cost to be borne by a drugs budget under increasing pressure. Once prescription charges raised more than £50 million a year for the NHS. Their abolition meant there was considerably less money to spend on medicines.

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Among the arguments against the policy is the fact that it disproportionately helps the better-off. Prescriptions were already free for those on low incomes or benefits, so the Scottish Government’s munificence was not directed towards those in need but towards those who were already doing fine.

In the seven years since prescription charges were abolished in Scotland, health boards across the country have spent more than £57m providing free paracetamol – that can be bought for as little as 30p for 16 tablets in shops.

It is certainly true that before the Scottish Government did away with charges for all, many people would have been prescribed paracetamol without having to pay. But many of those now receiving everyday drugs such as the painkiller for free would have absolutely no problem paying for them themselves.

It is hardly surprising that the abolition of prescription charges has enjoyed widespread popularity. But there is a heavy cost for this policy and we should be willing to discuss whether it’s as fair as it appears.

If we believe that universality should apply when it comes to free prescriptions then we have to accept that our position means money that might be invested in new – and better – drugs simply is not there. We have to believe that the right of the wealthiest to get free paracetamol is more important than the loss to the NHS drugs budget caused by the policy.

Free prescriptions are, it turns out, very expensive, indeed.