The Government has abolished $5 prescription charges, meaning that for most people, picking up Pharmac-subsidised prescriptions will now be free.
But the Government will still collect co-payments for a tiny number of prescriptions.
Under the current system, there are also $10 and $15 co-payments for some prescriptions, although these account for less than 1 per cent of total prescription charges collected.
The Government has not decided to axe the $15 charge, meaning some prescriptions - about 177,000 a year based on last year’s numbers - will continue to attract a $15 charge.
In 2022, 29.6 million prescriptions attracted a $5 co-payment charge.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said that as of July, “the $5 co-payment for prescriptions will be removed. Prescriptions from specialists and non-publicly funded prescribers will still attract a $15 co-payment”.
Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said the “vast majority of prescription co-pays are $5 and by scrapping the charge, more than three million New Zealanders will benefit”.
“As a former doctor I have seen first-hand the struggle people can face to pay for their medicines,” Verrall said.
She said the policy did cover public hospital specialist prescriptions.
The policy has attracted criticism from the political right for being untargeted and expensive. National’s Nicola Willis said her party would get rid of it and replace it with a more targeted model, potentially offering free prescriptions to those with a Community Services Card or Super Gold card.
Act deputy leader Brooke van Velden supported a similar idea, saying Act backed a policy that would provide “targeted support to those most in need”.
Van Velden said additional funding should be directed to GP capitation payments, addressing a looming crisis in general practice.
“A Government-commissioned report by Sapere calculated that GP practices’ current net deficit is $137 million per annum. A GP workforce survey (2022) found that 79 per cent of GPs rate themselves as burnt-out to some degree, and 48 percent of GPs rate themselves as high on the burnout scale,” she said.
“Act would provide General Practices with the funding boost they deserve. They play too important of a role in New Zealand’s health system for things to continue as they are,” she said.
Both National and Act have questioned how much money scrapping the $5 fee will actually save people, given under current rules prescription charges are capped at 20 a year, meaning someone would pay a maximum of $100 for $5 scripts or $300 for $15 scripts. All prescriptions for children under the age of 13 are free and the cap of 20 applies to partners and dependent children up to the age of 18.
The Ministry of Health spokesperson said prescriptions with a $15 co-payment will continue to count towards the cap.
“This means that if a person or family collects 20 prescriptions that attract a $15 co-payment, the total cost for the year would be $300. Once a person or family reach 20 prescription items in a year, they can get a Prescription Subsidy Card, which means they will not have to pay any more prescription charges until 1 February the following year,” they said.
This aspect of the policy has already gotten some Labour MPs into trouble.
Manurewa MP Arena Williams had a “context” tag added to a tweet of hers by Twitter users, who flagged an important detail missing from a tweet of hers promoting the free prescriptions policy.
The tweet said her father “pays around $50 a month for medicine from our local pharmacist who he walks to, and who knows him by name. Scrapping the fee means he’ll never choose between heating his bedroom and his health”.
Depending on the type of prescription Williams’ father had, he should be paying a maximum of $100 or $300 a year rather than $600 ($50 a month) - and if he pays the $300 a year, then this policy will not change anything.
Williams told the Herald that the point she was trying to make is that “under the new policy, he’ll never have to make a choice about whether to pay for [prescriptions] - even if he moved, and I stopped picking up his scripts, he’d still have free meds”.