Northern Ireland GPs could have saved £73m says PAC
Tens of millions of pounds could have been saved if Northern Ireland GPs had prescribed lower cost drugs, according to a new report.
Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says NI doctors tend to prescribe more expensive branded medicines.
It says costs for prescription drugs in the rest of the UK have fallen, but those in NI have increased.
An estimated £73m could have been saved if NI GPs prescribed medicines in line with colleagues in Wales, it said.
The report also said around £54m could be generated if average prescribing costs were reduced by 10%.
The PAC says GPs have gone some way to achieve savings in the past four years, but they had little incentive to consider costs as they fell to the Health and Social Care Board.
The committee has criticised the Department of Health for "refusing to accept" that it was possible to do cost comparisons with England, Scotland and Wales for drug costs, describing this as "disheartening".
It also says it is unacceptable that the department has failed to reach agreement with pharmacists on a revised contract for payments.
If this had been done, more than £45m would have been released for patient services, says the PAC.
It believes the system for reimbursing pharmacists is vulnerable to fraud, with the risk of cheaper generic drugs being dispensed when a doctor has actually prescribed a more expensive medicine.
The PAC says the department's decision not to use devolved powers to get information from medicines contractors is "flawed" and a solution should be reached urgently.
Primary care prescribing costs in Northern Ireland are £460m a year - around 10% of all health and social care expenditure.
Health Minister Jim Wells said his department would consider the PAC's findings in the context of "ongoing efforts to ensure that proper procedures continue to be applied to the management of public funds and in delivering improved health and social care".
"Making comparisons with different jurisdictions is not always straightforward and whilst I acknowledge that the report has identified that further efficiencies may be possible, I welcome the Audit Office's acknowledgement that through the efforts of departmental and HSC staff the real terms cost of prescribing has reduced by 18% in the period from 2006 to 2013," he said.
"In the four-year period to 2013/14 the department, through the HSC, has delivered £132m in prescribing efficiencies.
"My department will continue to seek out further deliverable efficiencies through its ongoing engagement with the HSC Board, GPs, pharmacists and the pharmaceutical industry."
Mr Wells said a detailed memorandum of reply would be made by the Department of Finance and Personnel to the issues raised by the PAC and it would be inappropriate for him to comment further in advance.