Northern Ireland could re-introduce prescription charges as a way of paying for life-saving drugs, Health Minister Edwin Poots has suggested.
Prescription charges were abolished in April 2010 by the previous Health Minister, Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey, and Mr Poots' party, the Democratic Unionists, made no mention of re-introducing them in their manifesto issued before the May 5 elections this year.
However, Mr Poots has now said that reintroducing a charge of as little as 50 pence per prescription, or even less, would affect only 11% of the population but could raise millions to fund supplies of "life-changing and life-saving" drugs to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
The minister told the BBC that he feels a "moral obligation" to supply these drugs, which are not currently being supplied to all patients in Northern Ireland who need them, and that he was looking at "various models" to address the issue.
"We are looking at a range of funding streams, but the one option which most definitely is not available to us is additional cash from the budget," he added, in comments made to the Belfast News Letter.
Mr Poots also said that if prescription charges were to be re-introduced, "it certainly will not happen within this financial year."
Nevertheless, he added that it was "simply unacceptable" that "life-changing and potentially life-saving" medicines "are available everywhere but here in Northern Ireland."
Mr McGimpsey had put the cost of abolishing the prescription charge at around £13 million, but Mr Poots says he believes the true cost is actually closer to £30 million.
- In late June, a public opinion poll conducted by Northern Ireland's Patient and Client Council found that most people considered that the re-introduction of a minimum prescription charge would be acceptable, provided the list of illnesses that exempt patients from charges was reviewed to ensure that the needs of people with long-term serious conditions could be adequately met.
Also, they said that individuals' economic and social situations and needs must be taken into account; for example, medication for pensioners, children and people on low incomes should remain free.