National Health Service patients in Scotland can look forward to paying even less for prescriptions if plans to drop the current charge get the seal of approval from the Scottish parliament.

Patients in Scotland are currently only paying £4 per prescription, and plans to lower this to £3 form part of a phased reduction of the charge with a view to abolishing it completely by next year.

In addition, the cost of Pre-Payment Certificates, a type of multi-saver scheme which allows patients with certain long-term conditions to pay in advance and save money, will also be lowered if the proposals are approved, from £13 to £10 for a four-month certificate and £38 to £28 for a 12-month one.

Public Health Minister Shona Robison hailed the planned cuts as “great news for patients”, adding: "Not only will it bring us nearer to removing a 'tax on ill health' that people needing medicines shouldn't have to face, it's in line with the founding principle of the NHS that it should be free at the point of delivery”.

In addition, she said it is “particularly noteworthy” that the number of items dispensed to patients holding PPCs overshot the number dispensed against an individual charge for the first time, which, she claims, “shows that the greatest benefit of the policy is to people with long-term conditions who shouldn't face ongoing financial penalties just because they're living with illness”.

But the move could add further fuel to the debate over the difference between NHS patients in the UK’s three nations - NHS patients in Wales have been receiving free medication since 2007, the prescription charge is set to be scrapped in Scotland next year, and yet in England patients are currently paying £7.20 per script.

In 2008, UK Charity Citizen’s Advice commissioned a survey which showed that as many as 800,000 people in England chose not to collect a prescription in the previous year because of the cost involved, and that these figures had not improved since the first such survey was undertaken in 2001.

The findings lead the charity to call for an urgent review of prescription charges in England, as recommended by the Health Select Committee back in 2006, on growing fears that poorer people with chronic illnesses are not getting access to their treatments because they cannot afford to pay for them, putting their health at risk.

Growing pressure for England to follow
And last year the British Medical Association also backed the call to dump the prescription charge in England. According to the Association, prescription charges can be a significant barrier to patients taking essential medication, and it argues that scrapping them could also cut down hospital admissions and reduce the time taken for sick leave from work.

Director of the Patients Association Katherine Murphy told PharmaTimes UK News that it has long supported the abolition of prescription charges. “Patients are sick of healthcare lotteries. Changes should be based on clinical not political criteria. The NHS is supposed to provide a service that is free at the point of delivery. Prescription charges contradict this key principle and are hugely unfair for patients,” she said.

But a spokesperson for the Department of Health stressed to PharmaTimes UK News that prescription charges “provide a valuable contribution to the NHS in England -about £435 million a year - money that goes towards providing care that would otherwise have to be found elsewhere”.

However, she added that the government “recognises that we need a fairer system of prescription charges” and, to this end, “from April 2009, prescription charges were abolished for cancer patients, and, over the next few years, the government will progressively abolish charges for patients with other long-term conditions and has set up a review to ensure this is introduced effectively”.

According to the Scottish Executive, the total cost of the reduction in prescription charges is projected to be within the £24 million set aside to pay for the policy.