Scottish BMA plans to vote on reintroduction in Clydebank

Free prescriptions are a landmark achievement of devolution and should be protected, Colin Fox, RISE's top candidate on the Lothians list, has said today.

His remarks come as the Annual Conference of the British Medical Association's Scottish Committee convenes in Clydebank.

A motion has been tabled at the conference by the Scottish BMA's Ayrshire and Arran branch calling for the reintroduction of means tested NHS prescription charges on the grounds that providing medicine free is 'a drain on NHS resources and adds to GP's workloads'.

Fox, who as an MSP in 2004 presented the original Holyrood Bill to abolish the charges, believes any move to reintroduce the charges would not be in the best interests of patients. The policy was subsequently adopted and implemented by the SNP.

He said:

"NHS Prescription charges were introduced in 1951. The charge 1/- [one shilling]was intended to be temporary to help pay for Britain's war in Korea. Sixty years later they were finally abolished in Scotland but only after the charge had risen to £6.50 per item on the prescription.

"The evidence I presented to the Holyrood Parliament in 2004 showed that tens of thousands of patients were going without the medicines their GP's had recommended for them because they could not afford to pay the charge.

"The means testing principles were both illogical and contradictory. Some patients were exempt from payment on the grounds of age. Others, such as pregnant mums, on basis of their particular health condition.There was no logic to which conditions should be exempt and others charged. It was entirely arbitrary based on the cost implications to the Exchequer.

"This meant that a retired multi-millionaire for example did not have to pay a penny but a low paid care worker had to meet the cost in full.

"MSPs for example on £65,000 a year were often exempt by virtue of their age or existing health condition but cancer patients requiring multiple drugs could rack up a small fortunes in medical bills.

"The founding principle of the NHS, that the service be available to all citizens free at the point of need and paid for out of general taxes was of course completely breached by prescription charges.

 "Wales and Northern Ireland had abolished the charges years before Holyrood finally did so in 2011. Today only NHS patients in England now pay for their prescriptions. The charge currently stands at £8.20 per item. And it is due to rise again on April 1st.

"Prescription charges mean the sick must pay twice for medical treatment, once out of their general taxes and secondly from this additional 'tax on the sick'.

"Economically the case for reintroducing prescription charges is weak.

"NHS Scotland gave evidence in support of my Bill to show the cost of admitting patients to hospital whose condition had deteriorated through not accessing proper medication [£600/day] far exceeded any income they might see from prescription charges. Leaving aside the cost to the wider economy - of days lost to prolonged sickness absence from work - the cost to the NHS of subsequent admissions to hospital made the amount received from prescription charges economically foolish.

"Furthermore the cost of administering the means-tested system and protecting it from fraud reduced again any financial advantage the NHS might accrue from the charges.

"NHS prescription charges are profoundly and politically unpopular because they undermine the fundamental principle of an NHS free to all.

 "The cost of medicines prescribed by GP's to their patients represents less than 0.5% [half of one per cent] of NHS Scotland's total budget.

"Taken together all this shows why RISE candidates across Scotland will not support the reintroduction of NHS prescription charges and neither should the British Medical Association."