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Tuesday, 4 February, 2003, 17:43 GMT
Free prescriptions call
Arthritic hands
Arthritis sufferers could get free prescriptions
Thousands of people in Wales with long-term illnesses could receive free prescriptions if the Welsh Assembly votes to change the law.

Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Kirsty Williams has received backing for measures to update the rules on who is eligible for free prescriptions in Wales and has tabled changes to the current regulations.

Kirsty Williams
Liberal Democrat AM Kirsty Williams

The rules over who qualifies for free prescriptions were drawn up in 1968 but if they were changed, those eligible for free prescriptions would include people with conditions such as arthritis and cystic fibrosis.

In Wales, people aged under 25 and the over 60s are exempt from prescription charges.

Thousands in Wales could benefit from the proposed change, but the plan would cost an estimated 20m per year.

Ms Williams received backing from Labour AMs in the assembly on Tuesday, but there are a number of hurdles to cross before changes to create a fairer system can be made.

'Detrimental'

Sue Auld, 50, from Prestatyn, north Wales, who was forced to quit work because of arthritis, takes eight different medications for her condition and pays a considerable sum each year on prescriptions.

"If I had to pay for presciptions each month, it would cost me 48, so I pay a prescription pre-payment certificate for 31 every four months," she explained.

Hywel Evans, policy manager for Arthritis Care in Wales, said the AM's motion was welcomed.

"Arthritis is not on the exemption list despite its chronic, long-term nature, the severe pain and physical impairment it causes so many in Wales and the vital role of treatments.

"The financial consequences of arthritis can also be severe - with adaptations and disability equipment and often loss of employment and income.

"Further, many people with arthritis require over five prescriptions a month - treatments vital for managing their condition."

'Taxing the sick'

Ms Williams said there was an "overwhelming" argument for bringing in the changes.

"It is very unfair that some conditions are exempt, while other conditions which require long-term medication.

"There is a lot of evidence to show that people are making choices whether to spend their money on a prescription item or other essentials for their life, which has a detrimental effect on their health.

"We do need to look at how we can help people who are struggling to pay for their medication - we are taxing people who are sick and that is not fair."

She added: "You do not need to have a very high income before you have to pay for your medication."

'Electioneering'

The Labour Party is undecided as to whether it should back the plan when it is voted on by Assembly Members on Tuesday.

Labour has doubts about the costings and talks were held on Monday between the Liberal Democrats and Welsh Heath Minister Jane Hutt to try to achieve a common position ahead of the vote.

But the Conservative AM for South Wales East, William Graham, has accused Ms Williams and the Liberal Democrats of electioneering with the issue.

He said: ""As part of the Assembly Government, they could have proposed this measure at anytime - it is as though they have just woken-up to the fact that there is an election in May and they are using these people in a very cynical way in a blatant attempt to grab votes."

Fred Johnson, of the Arthritis Research Campaign, said 25% of the population in Wales were affected by arthritis.

"I welcome the idea of free prescriptions, but there are many other forms of arthritis that do not need prescriptions, but more rheumatologists."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Kirsty Williams, Lib Dem AM
"The system is simply not working - those with chronic illness are basically paying a tax for being ill."
Kirsty Williams, Lib Dem AM
"I do not think it is possible to question the justification for change"
See also:

09 Nov 02 | Health
26 Oct 02 | Health
21 Sep 02 | Health
24 Aug 02 | Health
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