The Scottish Executive has announced plans to abolish all prescription charges by 2011, with a phased reduction of prices starting with a 25% cut to £5.00 in April next year.

"Prescription charges are a tax on ill health, and can be a barrier to good health for too many people,” commented Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon. “This Scottish Government is committed to building a healthier nation; through tackling the health inequalities that still scar our nation and supporting people to live longer and lead healthier lives,” she added, explaining the move.

Ms Sturgeon announced that April next year will also see a 50% price cut for four- and 12-month pre-payment certificates, which cover all prescriptions for people with chronic or long-term conditions over the chosen period. “This substantial reduction in the cost of PPCs is the simplest and most effective way of providing direct financial support to people with chronic conditions,” she stressed.

Ministers have set aside £20 million, £32 million and £45 million for the three financial years from 2008-9 to pay for the phase-out.

The Scottish Pharmacy Board of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain has welcomed the move, which, it claims, represents a “removal of the financial barriers to achieving good health and reducing health inequalities”.

Hindering access
Further explaining its support for the decision, Dr Rose Marie Parr, Chairman of the Board, said: “We are concerned that prescription charges can hinder access to medicines for patients, particularly those with long term chronic conditions who are on low incomes but not exempt from the current levy of £6.85 per item.”

“The profession is keen to work with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders to minimise any impact on GP and community pharmacy services while ensuring that medicines and appliances are used safely and are valued by the public,” she added.

But the move will likely re-ignite the debate over the cost of medicines to patients, which has been simmering since NHS patients started receiving free medication in Wales from last April, while in England they are now paying £6.85 per prescription following another hike in price earlier this year.