Prescriptions will be free of charge in NI by April 2010
Plans to abolish prescription charges in Northern Ireland have been announced by NI Health Minister Michael McGimpsey.
The cost of a prescription in NI will be reduced to £3 per prescription in January 2009 and will be free of charge by April 2010.
The charges were abolished in Wales on 1 April 2007 and are due to be abolished in Scotland.
This leaves England as the only country in the UK to retain the charges.
Mr McGimpsey said prepayment certificates would come down in price, from £35.85 to £9 for four months and from £98.70 to £25 for 12 months until prescriptions are free.
Speaking at the Cancer Centre in Belfast City Hospital on Monday, Mr McGimpsey said free prescriptions would be introduced, subject to the agreement of the Executive.
The UUP minister established a cost and benefits review into the abolition of prescription charging last year.
He said that in reaching his decision he had to "carefully consider the consequences of any change to the current charging regime in Northern Ireland".
"A key consideration for me was the loss of around £13m income each year from prescription charges, and while it is only 3.5% of the total drugs bill, it is still a lot of money," he said.
"After looking closely at the financial position with my officials, I have concluded that the cost of free prescriptions can be found within my existing budget and without impacting on any existing service."
Iris Robinson, DUP, chair of the Health Committee, welcomed the news.
She said she was disappointed that charges for drugs used in cancer treatment were not being abolished immediately.
Mrs Robinson urged the Executive to consider this, as soon as possible.
Sinn Féin health spokesperson Michelle O'Neill said: "Many people on low incomes were forced to choose between what medicines they could actually afford to get on prescription.
"This obviously had a very adverse affect on the ability to treat illnesses."
The SDLP's Carmel Hanna, also her party's spokesperson on health, similarly welcomed Mr McGimpsey's proposal.
"I believe this announcement to abolish prescription charges for all patients, regardless of their illness or background, is a major step in ensuring people receive the necessary care and treatment at their time of need," she said.
Alliance health spokesperson Kieran McCarthy said: "This is a great day for our health service."
Dr Brian Dunn of the British Medical Association (BMA) Northern Ireland described the health minister's plan to abolish prescription charged as a "very positive step forward".
"All those patients who have found it very hard over the years to pay for their medication will welcome it - as does the BMA," he said.
Heather Monteverde of Macmillan Cancer Support said: "Cancer patients in Northern Ireland have been struggling to pay these unfair charges for too long and it is fantastic news."