This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the prescription charges exemption list. This list has remained largely unchanged since 1968, which campaigners say has resulted in people living with long-term conditions paying high amounts for necessary medication. This week we hear from campaigners and people, in their words, on these costs on why they believe these charges should be scrapped.
Nothing can prepare you for being told you have a life-long condition. On top of the shock, you may have to change your life to cope with symptoms and medical appointments may suddenly take up a huge part of your life. And that’s before considering work – how will your boss take it if you need to drop a shift at short notice because you’re unwell? Medication will help, but as you are in work, not on benefits and live in England, you’ll need to pay £8.80 for every item on your prescription. So on top of everything else, you need to think about how this is going to affect the family finances.
Too often, as a community pharmacist, I hear concerns like this from people who come in clutching a prescription, seeking advice. They’re not alone – around 15 million people in England have a long-term condition.
Some long-term conditions exempt people from the prescription charge, but others don’t, which is deeply unfair. The list of those exempt from prescription charges was created 50 years ago and hasn’t changed since. It was established at a time when people with certain illnesses, such as cystic fibrosis, weren’t expected to live long and other conditions, such as HIV, had yet to be discovered.
Patient surveys consistently show that one in three working people with a long-term condition struggle to afford medication. Some are forced to ration the medicines they take. When filling a prescription, people frequently ask me: “I can’t afford all of these – which one can I do without?” Others have to choose between paying for their medicines or household bills. They face this poverty because they have an illness they don’t want.
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The same surveys show that around one in five people with a long-term condition don’t buy a pre-payment certificate, a kind of ‘season ticket’ for people who need regular medication, because they feel they don’t get enough prescriptions to benefit from one. This is particularly true if your condition fluctuates, meaning some months you need lots of prescriptions and others you don’t. In addition, at £104 per year, buying a pre-payment certificate is also beyond the means of many. For instance, if you’re on a zero-hours contract with a variable monthly income, paying regular instalments for medicines you may or may not need that month becomes an unaffordable luxury.
We’re not denying for a minute that the NHS needs more money, but recent research by the Prescription Charges Coalition has shown charging people with long-term conditions is, in fact, a false economy.
To put it simply, prescription charges are a tax on the sick. This tax, however, ultimately costs the Government more than it saves: if someone can’t afford to take the medicines they need regularly and they become really unwell, the Government ends up paying for the knock-on expense of hospital admissions and, at around £400 a day for a hospital bed, that’s a not insignificant cost. This isn’t a party-political issue, it is a problem that has existed for decades and goes against the core principles of the NHS.
To find out more about the Prescription Charges Coalition, click here.