Prescription fees jumped today from $3 to $5 a script - a hike one expert believes will turn more people away from picking up their medication.

In last year's Budget the Government announced it would make the first increase in prescription costs in 20 years, to fund reinvestment in the health sector in lean economic times.

The Medical Association welcomed the move, saying the funding would reduce waiting times for cancer treatment and operations.

NZMA chair Paul Ockelford said the increase in prescription charges was small, and was "unlikely to be a barrier for most".


However Nikki Turner, who works as a GP in Wellington as well as sitting on the Child Poverty Action Group, said any assumption that the $2 increase was a minor issue was not looking at the bigger picture.

"For a lot of people that's fine, but for many people there are a lot of barriers to access to primary health care."

New Zealanders on lower incomes, particularly those with large families or complex medical problems, would find the hike in prescription costs as another barrier.

"We know from the Ministry of Social Development's own data on severe and significant hardship that many families don't pick up prescriptions because of costs. If they've got a small amount of money left over, then prescriptions will go or they'll delay picking them up," she said.

She had seen this happen at her own Wellington practice.

Labour health spokeswoman Maryan Street said the increase will place more financial stress on those who can least afford it.

In the past year about 267,000 adults said they did not get a prescription filled because of the $3 charge, she said.

"That in turn means some health problems are going untreated, resulting in higher costs to everybody down the track and undoubtedly a factor in the extra 4000 children admitted to hospital this year compared to last."


In announcing the Budget increase, Health Minister Tony Ryall said the $5 cost would be applied to the first 20 items of medicine per family each year.

He defended the hike in prescription charges - which would amount to a $20 million saving in the first year and $40 million in subsequent years - saying the money would be invested back into the health sector.

The Community Pharmacy in Linwood, Christchurch, is avoiding the price hike by chipping in with its own subsidy, Newstalk ZB reported.

Owner Anne Tiller and her husband Joe felt the price increase was going to make times even harder for many New Zealanders.