Prescription charges in Wales are to be frozen, with free medicines for people under-25 from April, Welsh finance minister Edwina Hart has announced.

The sharp divergence from English policy is an early product of the Welsh Assembly's new Labour-Liberal Democrat partnership agreement which pledges to cut the remaining prescription charges in the lifetime of the Assembly.

But the move has received a lukewarm reception from the British Medical Association in Wales, which supported the freezing of prescription charges, but felt making those for under-25s free would be 'unhelpful'.

'People will go to see a GP for a prescription for items that otherwise could be bought over the counter, taking up an appointment that would otherwise be available for patients with chronic diseases, 'a spokesperson said.

Simon Williams, assistant director of the Patients Association, gave a cautious welcome to the prescription freeze but warned: 'It's fragmenting what we know as the NHS and breaking up equity.'

But Jane Jeffs, chief officer of the Association of Welsh Community Health Councils, said free prescriptions for under-25s was 'great'.

The move comes as part of a three-year draft budget package which means NHS funding in Wales will rise to a 'record level' of£3.6bn by 2003-04.

The budget will bring increases of£169m in 2001-02,£415m in 2002-03 and£669m in 2003-04.

The increases will be directed at frontline services - improving NHS waiting times, more doctors and nurses, better hospitals and strengthening local services.

The Putting Wales First Lib-Lab partnership agreement promises extending prescription exemptions to those who remain most in need, and those who currently have most difficulty paying; starting with under-25s.

It adds: 'For these purposes there is a budgetary provision of£3m over the next two years.'

An NHS Confederation in Wales spokesperson said: 'We're very pleased overall by the settlement, which over the three years will be excellent.'

Welsh Healthcare Financial Management Association chair Alan Brace said the budget plan was 'broadly based on previous commitments'.

The£3m prescription price measures 'needed to be seen in relation to the overall priorities of the NHS', he added.

This week, Northern Ireland health minister Bairbre de Brun launched a three-month public consultation on plans for a revised resource allocation formula for the province's four health and social services boards.

The report is available from www.dhssni.gov.uk/whats_new/ and comments can be submitted electronically.

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