Budget 2023: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins takes jab at National's changing position on prescription fee

The Prime Minister has taken a jab at the National Party's changing position on the $5 prescription fee.

National leader Christopher Luxon on Friday morning clarified his party's stance on the Budget 2023 announcement that the $5 co-payment on prescription medicine would be removed from July.

Luxon said the party didn't support the policy being universal but instead felt it could be targeted to people "doing it really tough", like those on low incomes or the elderly. He said it could be applied to those with community service card holders or people with super gold cards.

"I don't think it makes a lot of sense that someone like me gets the benefit of that… I think if I can pay, I should pay. I think it's really unfair, it's money that's wasted on being spent on someone like me, for example, who can afford to pay for my prescriptions myself."

It's a softening of the position presented by National finance spokesperson Nicola Willis on Thursday, who said her party would reverse the decision to abolish the $5 charge.

Speaking to media later on Friday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said it was difficult to know National's stance. 

"Yesterday, they were saying they were going to reintroduce the prescriptions. Today, they are saying they are going to target them.

"They don't seem to be particularly consistent between any of their spokespeople about exactly what it is they are proposing to do. It is difficult to know what their position actually is."

Hipkins said cost "shouldn't be a barrier" to people getting the medicine they need.

"This is something that we can do that ensures that we end up with fewer people in our emergency departments with avoidable illness. In some cases, people haven't been collecting their prescriptions and as a result, their health conditions have got worst. 

"If they were getting their prescriptions they could avoid further interaction with the health system."

The Prime Minister described the policy, which costs $618.6 million over four years, as a "preventative measure" and claimed it was ultimately "going to save the health system money".

Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall on Thursday said the Government expected about 3 million New Zealanders would benefit from the decision to remove the $5 fee. 

"The $5 charge can be a barrier to some New Zealanders getting the medicines they need and this is especially the case at a time when people are facing increasing pressures on household budgets," Dr Verrall said. 

"As a doctor, there were times when my patients did not collect their medication and, in fact, we know more than 135,000 adults did not collect their prescription because of cost in 2021‑22. This is particularly the case for low-income families, Māori, Pasifika peoples and disabled New Zealanders."

There is already a prescription subsidy scheme in place for an individual or their family who has paid for and collected 20 new prescriptions for medicines funded by the Government each year.  After the 20th prescription, there is no longer a $5 fee. It resets on February 1 each year.

Pharmacists from the Prescription Access Initiative (PAI) said they were "delighted" by the Government's move to get rid of the fee altogether.

"We are crying - we are so delighted, pleased and relieved for our communities - everyone will have better access to healthcare," said PAI spokesperson Vicky Chan.

"The positive impacts will be huge - it’s difficult to take in. We wholeheartedly congratulate and thank the Government for this fantastic move."