1 Apr 2011

An Englishman, a Welshman and a Scotsman go to a pharmacy…

Channel 4 News looks at how patients with multiple ailments in England could face massive and at times unaffordable prescriptions where elsewhere in the UK charges are now abolished.

Prescription charges have been abolished in Scotland in line with other devolved parliaments in Wales and Northern Ireland, leaving England as the only remaining part of the country still charging for prescriptions.

It is believed the removal of the £3.00 charge that was in place in Scotland will to cost the Scottish Government £57million a year. In contrast to the countrywide abolition, George Osborne announced a 20p rise in prescription charges for England – to £7.40 per item – in an attempt to raise revenue for the NHS. The Department of Health (DoH) claim that £450million is raised every year from the charges in England, enough to pay the wage of 18,000 trained nurses or 3,500 consultants.

A lower cost Prescription Pre-Payment Certificate, costing an average of £2 a week for those who suffer from long-term or permanent ailments has been frozen in England for the second year running to alleviate the burden on patients regularly needing to pay prescription charges.

However, the DoH state that 90% of all prescriptions in England are issued free as claimants fit into exemption groups such as under-16 year-olds, low income families or pension-age patients. However they put the number of those exempt as equal to just 60% of the population indicating that people who are able to claim for free are more likely to claim multiple prescriptions. This can obviously be attributed to the fact the groups exempt include children and the elderly, but from research in Wales, there is an indication that access to free prescriptions results in more people receiving medication.

In Wales they have witnessed a year-on-year increase in prescriptions dispensed by GPs of between four and six per cent since the reduction in 2000-01 and the eventual abolishment in 2007. A further rise of 3.3% has occured over the last year.

Prescription charges cut in Scotland (reuters)

In England cancer patients already receive free prescription after a move in 2007 to get rid of charges, but this has not been extended to other long-term or potentially fatal illnesses. The Prescription Charges Campaign, a group of 24 healthcare charities, represent people with long-term conditions with a desire for prescription costs to fall in line with that of cancer treatment.

Money raised for NHS from prescription charges in England

Maura Gillespie from member charity The British Heart Foundation told Channel 4 News: “We would like to see the same prescription treatment given to cancer patients extended to heart disease patients and other long term conditions. We have a helpline staffed by patients and a common topic is the cost of prescription charges. The fact they went up last week in the budget wasn’t a good indication there will be a move down on price any time soon.”

Rethink Mental Illness, another member of The Prescriptive Charges Campaign, claim that the increased prescription charges place an unfair burden on people with a severe mental illness and highlighted how despite the government’s 90 percent figure for free prescriptions, many people who rely on prescriptions to work face multiple prescription payments that can escalate to unmanageable figures.

Rethink’s associate director told Channel 4 News: “The government has repeatedly said that its proposed healthcare reforms are about making the system fairer. It is in fact extremely unfair for anyone with a severe mental illness, who will now have to pay more for essential medication.

“People who have a severe mental illness and who are in full-time work rely on their medication to stay in employment and they are often taking more than one type of medication. Many of our members struggle to pay for their medication, even if they are in work, and often go without basic items to compensate. This is grossly unfair on people who are ill.”

In a 2008 survey Rethink found that rather than the national figure of 10 percent paying for their prescriptions, 19 percent of mental health patients had to pay for medication, and this figure rose to 56 percent for people who had been in paid employment in the previous 12 months.

Their assertion that some people’s medication costs were unmanageable was supported by an official spokesman for the Welsh Assembly. They told Channel 4 News that part of the decision to abolish payments in Wales was to help those who had multiple chronic ailments and had to pay individual prescription charges for their multiple medications.

The decision in Scotland (£57million per year) and Wales (£29million per year) to take a financial hit was a calculated effort to encourage people to prescribe illnesses before they became too serious and hospital treatment or more costly medication would be needed.

See Channel 4 News extended coverage from the latest budget and what the changes will mean for you