Darren Millar AM represents Clwyd West in the National Assembly for Wales and is the Shadow Minister for Health.
Five years ago this week saw the introduction of a policy that allows absolutely everyone access to free prescriptions in Wales. Everyone. Even the wealthy, the rich and the very rich. Wales is now a country where a millionaire is able to walk into a pharmacy and hand over a prescription for paracetamol. Prescriptions like these cost the NHS an average of over eight pounds to dispense, yet a short drive away the same medication would be available for 16 pence in a local shop or supermarket. At the same time that the millionaire collects his paracetamol, cancer patients are being denied access to modern and potentially life-saving drugs because the NHS can’t afford them. It is immoral and it is completely unsustainable.
The Welsh health budget is facing record breaking cuts of over half a billion pounds during the next three years. Labour is not protecting the budget in line with inflation and services are already being massively stretched. Meanwhile, vital funding is being used to give the super-rich bonjela, painkillers and athlete’s foot powder (which has also seen a rise in prescriptions). That just doesn’t make sense.
Last week the government published figures that prove just how out-of-control this policy has become. In the five years since its introduction, the number of prescription items dispensed has risen by over 15 per cent to 72.2 million. That means, on average, every single person in Wales – man, woman or child – received 24 prescriptions in 2011. Statistics clearly demonstrate that more people are popping NHS pills in Wales than in any other part of the UK, and yet the estimated cost of unused or unwanted NHS medicines stands at around 50 million pounds every year.
I passionately believe that all those who can afford to contribute towards the costs of their prescriptions, should. It’s as simple as that. Before this universal policy was mistakenly introduced, most people in Wales in need of healthcare were, quite rightly, already exempt from prescription charges – including those on income support, those over 60 and those under 25. I can understand and support the case for others, such as those with cancer or other chronic conditions to also be eligible for free prescriptions. But allowing absolutely everyone to be exempt – no matter how many tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds they may earn every year – is a freebie that Wales simply cannot afford. It’s a policy which is not helping the poor – it’s helping the rich.
By allowing those who can afford it to make a contribution towards their prescriptions, tens of millions could be pumped back into our National Health Service. This cash could be used, in part, to create a Cancer Drugs Fund, similar to the one benefiting thousands in England, where patients are five times more likely to be able to access the life-saving and prolonging treatment afforded by modern medicines than they are in Wales.
It’s time to ditch the dogma and come up with an NHS medicines policy in Wales which is fair and affordable. I hope that the Welsh Labour Government does just that.