Bid to block free prescriptions rejected

An attempt to block free prescriptions in Scotland has been emphatically rejected by MSPs.

Mary Scanlon, the Conservative health spokeswoman, had tried to stop the phasing out of charges by claiming it will cost the economy more than £40 million.

But Holyrood's Health and Sport Committee voted by seven to one against the Tory move, described by one member - a former GP - as "malicious and evil".

Ms Scanlon pushed the committee to a vote after complaining she had failed to get answers from the public health minister.

She said: "Abolishing prescription charges means that MSPs and others who currently contribute to the NHS budget will join a new group that can pay but won't pay. Only this week, we saw reports of patients with cancer being denied access to drugs on the NHS in Scotland.

"So would the money being used to fund this further reduction in prescription charges be better spent widening access to more drugs rather than giving existing treatments free to those who can afford to pay?"

She said the £40 million cost of scrapping charges could alternatively fund 175,211 MRI scans, 2000 new nurses or a 40 percent increase in the total hospital cleaning budget.

Ms Scanlon added: "As we prepare for a decade or more of exceptionally tight public public spending rounds, is it really sensible that one of the priorities of this Government is abolishing prescription charges rather than reforming the system to make it fairer?

"Freezing prescription charges at their current levels could be a sensible compromise at this stage."

However, public health minister Shona Robison defended the SNP policy, which will see charges for single items drop from £5 to £4 next month and scrapped by 2011.

She said: "We believe fundamentally that prescription charges are a tax on ill-health. We believe people should not be penalised financially if they fall ill and they should not have to make choices about which essential medicines they can afford.

"We also believe that prescription charges are a barrier to good health, particularly for those living with long-term conditions.

She added that scrapping the fees will help people affected by the worsening economic crisis.

Nationalist backbencher Ian McKee, a committee member and former GP, criticised the "malicious and evil" Tory proposal. He added: "The Tories don't realise the huge burden that having to pay for prescriptions can put on people."

Labour MSP Richard Simpson, also GP, said the use of antibiotics may increase due to the charge being scrapped.  He voted against Ms Scanlon but said there is a case for more affluent people to share the burden in some way.