Page last updated at 15:58 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

NHS charges to rise in England

Pills
The government insists the system in England is becoming "fairer"

NHS prescription charges in England are to go up from £7.10 to £7.20 from April, ministers have announced.

The cost of a dental check-up on the NHS in England will also increase by 30p to £16.50.

The announcement came on the day doctors' leaders called on the government to abolish prescription charges for all patients in England.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the current system was not working and was "iniquitous" for many patients.

Prescriptions are free for everyone in Wales, will be free in Northern Ireland by 2010 and in Scotland by 2011.

PRESCRIPTION CHARGES
England: £7.20 [from April]
Scotland: Phased out by 2011
Wales: No charge since 2007
Northern Ireland: £3 from January 2009, phased out by April 2010

The BMA has accused the government of supporting an "outdated" system in England which can harm health, saying that charging can put people off paying for the medication they need.

But the government has stressed that 89% of prescription charges in England are dispensed for free.

Pensioners and children are exempt from the charges, as are pregnant women, people on income-related benefits and patients with certain conditions.

Public health minister Dawn Primarolo said: "For people who say, 'Make prescriptions free' - which I think is a point that we do need to discuss - they also have to say, 'OK, what don't we spend the £400m on in the health service?'"

The minister said: "The remainder [of paid-for prescription charges] provides valuable income to the NHS, which goes towards the safety and speed of healthcare.

"But we are making the system fairer. Cancer patients will be eligible for free prescriptions from 1 April and we're looking at how we can do the same for people with long-term conditions."

CASE STUDY
Kelly Ridpath, 28, from Lincoln has suffered from asthma since the age of three.

She pays charges for asthma inhalers, anti-histamine drugs, migraine tablets and a once-a-year adrenaline injection for her nut allergy.

Kelly estimates she pays between £20 and £25 a month on prescription charges.

"I haven't opted for the £95 annual prescription "season ticket" because each year I have told myself I won't need so many drugs, " she said.

Kelly said she can afford to pay the charges, but is aware there are many - including in her own family - who struggle to find the money.

"I think it is unfair that people in other parts of the UK - such as Wales - don't pay any charges," she said.

"The government says the charges help to finance the NHS - but I thought I already paid my taxes to do this anyway."

But the BMA is worried about creating a "new set of arbitrary winners and losers."

Chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said: "Free prescriptions for people with long-term conditions is a laudable aim, but it does not go far enough.

"Making the list of exemptions longer will not make it fairer. Ultimately, we could end up with a situation where only a tiny proportion of prescriptions attract a charge, which would be nonsensical.

"Abolishing prescription charges altogether is the fairest and the simplest option."

The BMA said the current system was unfair, with people with asthma and heart disease, for example, not being exempt despite needing long-term treatment.

People whose incomes were low, but are just above the levels required to trigger exemptions, were also penalised, it said.BMA spokesman Dr Richard Vautrey, who is also a GP, told the BBC that charges were so high, some of his patients were not able to get all the treatments that they needed.

He said: "It's not unusual for patients to ask me which prescription is really important, which one can they get now and which one they have to wait maybe two weeks before they get their pay cheque."

He said if all patients could get the treatments they needed via free prescriptions it may reduce hospital admissions and costs for the health service in the long run.

He added: "What I hope is that what is good for patients in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is good for patients in England."

The BMA says that scrapping all charges could improve care and benefit society, by reducing hospital admissions, helping patients to return to work more quickly following illness.

FROM THE TODAY PROGRAMME

Asthma patient Sarah Harrison, from Telford in Shropshire, told the BBC she thought the current system was unfair.

But she said she understood that making an exemption for certain patients could cause problems for the NHS.

"I do appreciate... that if asthmatics become exempt, other people are going to say 'Well, why aren't we and why aren't we?' And so it goes on further down the line."

Katherine Murphy, director of the Patients Association, said English patients were "left navigating an increasingly contradictory system".

She added: "We have long supported the abolition of prescription charges and welcome the BMA's stance. Patients are sick of healthcare lotteries."

Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "We were delighted the government listened to us and abolished prescription charges for cancer patients.

"It was absolutely the right thing to do and finally righted a wrong which stood for 40 years."

Prescription charges since 2000



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SEE ALSO
Free cancer drugs scheme begins
20 Jan 09 |  Health
Brown in free prescriptions vow
23 Sep 08 |  Health

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