BBC Home > BBC News > Health

Call for prescription charge end

4 July 08 05:01 GMT

Three-quarters of people in the UK want to see prescription charges scrapped in England, a BBC poll suggests.

The survey of 1,000 adults, to mark the 60th anniversary of the NHS, reveals discomfort with different health policies across the devolved nations.

Seven out of 10 said the differences mattered, although the government ruled out any change to English charges.

Charging has been removed in Wales, is set to disappear in Scotland and is under review in Northern Ireland.

Prescription charging is the most obvious divergence of NHS policy since responsibility for healthcare was given to the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, and the Scottish Parliament.

In England, each item costs £7.10, raising approximately £430m for health service funds.

Only 12% of prescriptions are actually paid for - the vast majority are covered by exemptions for children, pensioners and those with long-lasting medical conditions such as epilepsy.

Prescriptions have been free since 2007 in Wales, and will be free from 2011 onwards in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the issue is "under review".

People who answered the BBC poll of more than 1,000 adults were more likely to call for the abolition of charging if they lived outside England - 84% from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, compared with 73% in England itself.

Lower waits

This is by no means the only way in which the NHS has become different depending in which part of the UK you live.

Waiting times have fallen faster and further in England compared with Scotland and Wales, while Scotland is the only place to provide free personal care to the elderly.

In total, 71% of those questioned felt that these differences "mattered", and this was a view found most often in older people and women.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that no changes to English prescription charges were on the way.

"Prescription charges provide a valuable contribution to the NHS in England, they raised £430m in 2007-08.

"Abolishing them would significantly reduce the money available to deliver other health priorities."

She added that the NHS remained united by the "same vision and values" across the UK, but that devolution had given each country the "freedom" to make decisions about the specific health problems affecting its population.

The UK's four health ministers released a statement on Thursday "reaffirming" their commitment to the same "core NHS principles".

These included providing high quality services based on clinical need, not the ability to pay, yet providing value for money for the UK taxpayer.

But Beth Taylor, of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, said the current situation needed to be reviewed urgently.

"There are clear disadvantages under existing arrangements, particularly for non-exempt patients, such as asthma and arthritis sufferers, who require long-term medication for multiple chronic conditions.

"There is a case for abolition of prescription charges in England."

Related BBC sites

*