The DUP’s Jim Wells told assembly members on Tuesday that the department would consult on bringing back charges after they were abolished in 2010.
Money raised from a new charge could be used to fund expensive specialist treatments such as cancer drugs, with Northern Ireland's Department for Health, Social Services and Public Safety hoping to raise £10m for a specialist drugs fund similar to England's cancer drugs fund.
Mr Wells said: ‘In view of the current financial position, I do not think that it is unreasonable to ask people to contribute to the cost of their prescriptions and to provide a financial foundation for innovative and specialist medicines for the future. I believe that this is an appropriate time to reconsider the provision of free prescriptions in Northern Ireland.’
Prescription charge models
A consultation document proposes three models: a return to the system abolished in 2010 with a £3 per item charge and exemptions. A second model would expand the number of exemptions. A third model could see a universal charge of around 50p with no exceptions.
The chairwoman of Stormont’s health committee, Sinn Féin’s Maeve McLaughlin, asked, given the huge health inequalities in Northern Ireland, how everyone could be expected to pay the charges. The minister said he wanted to keep charges to ‘an absolute minimum’.
‘This is a different model; this is not going back to prescription charges of £6.40 per script or £8 in England. This is a standard tariff for every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland, with a ceiling for the year of an unspecified figure, which, we hope, is affordable to the entire community,' he said.
SDLP health spokesman Fearghal McKinney said his party would have ‘reservations’ about tying the new drugs fund to prescription charges, and the Conservatives said the plans would ‘punish’ people with long-term illnesses.
The Alliance party said it would support ‘fair and efficient’ prescription charges to fund specialist drugs.
The BMA said its policy was to oppose the reintroduction of charges. England is currently the only part of the UK where prescription charges remain in place.