Following its victory in the Scottish parliament elections last month, the Scottish National Party has unveiled plans to carry through its pre-election manifesto commitment of abolishing prescription charges for National Health Service patients.

Last week, Scottish public health minister Shona Robinson told attendees at an NHS Scotland conference that prescription charges are a tax on ill health, and that the SNP has planned their abolition in two stages, a spokeswoman for the Scottish Health Executive told PharmaTimes UK News. The first, she explained, was scrapping charges for chronically-ill patients by April next year, and the second being the extension of free prescriptions to all patients in Scotland over the lifetime of the current government, ie. within the next four years.

She went on to say that the definition of what constitutes a chronically ill patient is currently being defined, and that the move still requires the backing of parliament before it comes into force.

According to media reports the move, which will reportedly cost taxpayers in England $50 million a year, is being viewed by some as provocative, given that the SNP is fighting hard for the country’s independence from England.

Re-igniting the debate

The situation has re-ignited the debate over the cost of medicines to patients, which has been simmering since the move to provide NHS patients in Wales with medicines free of charge from last April, while in England they are now paying £6.85 per prescription following another recent hike in price.

A spokeswoman for the Patients Association told PharmaTimes UK News that there is a desperate need for a complete overhaul of the system. “It’s meant to be a national health service, but it’s gone well beyond that now,” she argued. “Post-evolution, it’s become all things to all people and has become increasingly unfair to the English,” she explained.

“The decisions that are being made are political rather than clinical, and there is the wider issue of what should be funded on the NHS. A patient feeling ill gains entry to the health service at no cost, but as soon as they need medication they are charged for it," and this is contrary to the NHS’ ethos of free at the point of care, she argued.