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
Unless you’ve seen your income erode to nothing, you probably wouldn’t get aerated about prescription charges. You might notice when you pop into your doctor’s surgery for a prescription that the cost has gone up per item (currently £8.80 in England, if you are interested). You might think about why some conditions get free prescriptions and others don’t but you probably don’t spend much of your time worrying about it.
As my husband and I have recently found out, we are all one illness, condition or accident away from discovering all about prescriptions charge exemptions and the inequity present in the current list.
The list of medical conditions that are exempt from paying for prescriptions has barely changed since 10 June 1968. Cancer was subsequently added to the list in 2009 but that was the last change. Why is this a problem? I’m going to use my husband Mark’s long-term illness as an example.
The first paper published on Mark’s condition was published in July 1968. This was a whole month after the list of prescription exemptions was drawn up. The list hasn’t kept up to date with medical progress or treatments.
Kennedy’s Disease is a rare disease of the motor neurones. Mark was once fit and active, with a professional career and interested in cycling, swimming and running. He started to limp and we all thought he needed some rest and a bit of physiotherapy. The limp became worse and he started to fall over. He went from using a stick, to crutches and now has a wheelchair to help him move around. His muscles are simply wasting away and his breathing muscles need to be supported by a machine at night.
Kennedy’s Disease is progressive and degenerative so things get worse over time. There is no treatment and no cure. So, no drugs. However, Mark does get frequent chest and throat infections, sometimes needing steroids and antibiotics.
Mark was ill health retired four years ago and I no longer teach. I am now his full-time carer. Our income has fallen off a cliff. We used our savings to adapt our house. We created a downstairs room and a wet room as he could no longer climb stairs. Having a long-term condition means additional expenses. We travel further for medical appointments to see consultants in specialist clinics. Heating and water bills are higher and costs are rising.
In addition to specific illnesses, there is one other category that enables a medical exemption from prescription charges. Anyone with a continuing physical disability which prevents them from going out alone, is exempt. In other words, someone in a wheelchair, or who is unable to go out without a carer, is eligible for free prescriptions.
We didn’t find out about this from any of the clinicians who had diagnosed or continued to support my husband, nor did we find out during his NHS wheelchair assessment. We found out from a member of staff at the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MND Association) * during an unrelated conversation two years ago.
Once we were told this we filled in a simple form, the GP signed it and sent it for processing. The onus is on the person living with the condition to find out whether they are exempt and to complete the form. We do feel that signposting is needed to highlight that this exemption is available. Anecdotally we are aware of people who are eligible for free prescriptions via this category but do not know about it.
And the real kicker - Mark has recently been diagnosed with diabetes as a consequence of his Kennedy’s Disease. His body effectively destroying the delicate insulin producing cells he needs. Diabetes is a condition exempt from prescription charges. He now qualifies for free prescriptions on two fronts. But me, as an asthmatic, and his carer, earning just £64.40 a week in Carer’s Allowance, does not. A prescription charge of £8.80 for me is pretty much a whole day’s pay (£9.20). Now that’s a sobering thought.
*The Motor Neurone Disease Association (MND Association) support people with Kennedy’s Disease.