The Welsh Assembly has come under fire again for scrapping National Health Service prescription charges, after shelling out £30 million on medicines for the current year.

A spokesman for the Welsh government confirmed to PharmaTimes UK News that £29.5 million has been reimbursed to NHS Wales for the year 2008/9, more than double the £14.7 million it dished out last year.

However, he stressed that the leap is because the termination of prescription charges was phased out over three years to ensure adequate funding was in place, and not because the prescriptions bill itself has all of a sudden doubled.

But campaigners and politicians have again attacked the free prescriptions policy and renewed calls to re-introduce charges, because of growing fears that money that should be spent on expensive, potentially life-saving drugs is being ‘wasted’ on products that could be bought by patients over the counter instead.

One campaigner Kate Spall, who’s mother was denied therapy with Pfizer’s Sutent (sunitinib) and subsequently died of renal cancer, told Welsh paper the Daily Post: “The free prescription service is great if you want to go out and get Calpol for your children but it’s no use if you need drugs for cancer”.

She also claims that the scheme is purely “a vote winner”, and that “many people would rather pay £5 and know that if they ever got cancer the necessary drugs will be available to them”.

Clwyd West AM Darren Millar seems to agree, describing the policy as “an expensive gimmick that NHS Wales can ill afford,” and adding: “I’d rather see the £30 million spent on modern treatments and medicine for those who desperately need them, rather than on paracetamol [or] Bonjela,” the Daily Post reports.

But speaking to PharmaTimes, the Welsh Assembly spokesman strongly refuted these claims. “All drugs deemed clinically appropriate by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellent and the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group are funded [by the Welsh Assembly], and providing free prescriptions has not changed that in any way”, he stressed.

Prescriptions rising
Nevertheless, a survey of GPs last year revealed that the number of prescriptions dispensed in Wales climbed to 62.1 million in 2007, the year charges were abolished completely, marking a 5% rise over 2006 when patients were being charged £3 per item, and adding fuel to fears that the system is open to abuse.

At the time, the Liberal Democrat Party argued that the money spent by the Welsh government on the drugs bill should instead be used for helping those in greatest need, such as by expanding the number of chronic conditions eligible for free prescriptions, the those backing the policy claim that it is in patients’ best interests over the long-term. "Free prescriptions are a long-term investment in improving health," the Welsh Assembly spokesman told PharmaTimes. "If people aren't put off seeking the appropriate care, due to financial reasons, their health will improve. If patients are able to get the treatment they need, it will ultimately help to reduce the long term cost to the health service."

Scotland to follow suit
The Scottish Executive also plans to scrap prescription charges in Scotland, which means that patients in England will be the only ones in the UK picking up the tab for their treatment.

The cost of a single prescription has already been dropped to £5, with a view to abolishing charges there completely by 2011.

A poll conducted by the BBC last year found that three-quarters of people believe England should also follow Wales and Scotland in scrapping charges, but the Department of Health has argued that funds raised for the NHS by the charge - equating to £430 million in 2006-7 - cannot be given up as they represent valuable income that can be sunk straight back into improving the health service.