Doctors’ leaders have renewed calls for prescription charges to be axed in England after the government announced plans to increase them from £7.20 to £7.40 on April 1.
Last week the Scottish parliament voted to scrap NHS prescription charges in Scotland altogether, from this April. Wales and Northern Ireland have already abolished their prescription charges.
Defending the move, a Department of Health spokesperson said: "The extensive exemption arrangements we have in place mean that in England, around 90% of prescription items are already dispensed free of charge,” adding that the 12 month prescription pre-payment certificate would be frozen for the second year running.
"Abolishing prescription charges in England would leave the NHS with a funding gap of over £450 million each year. This is valuable income —equivalent to the salary costs of nearly 18,000 nurses, or 15,000 midwives, or over 3,500 hospital consultants. This income helps the NHS to maintain vital services for patients," she said.
But in 2009 the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB) pointed out that the money levied on the charge neither reflects the price of the treatment nor does it specifically fund health services. Rather, the charge raises general tax revenue.
"[It] is a poorly conceived, manifestly unfair tax that shames the NHS and the Department of Health. It needs to go," said DTB.
Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chair of BMA Council, said that the government should be following the lead set by the three other nations in the UK, rather than seeking to hike up the charge.
He branded the current system as “a chaotic and unfair mess,” adding that the abolition of the charges in Scotland “further exaggerates the absurd postcode lottery that exists in the UK.”
He continued: “The bureaucracy needed to administer prescription charges is cumbersome, many of the exemptions are confusing and unfair. Patients with disabling long-term conditions still have to pay them despite a recent report recommending they be phased out.”
The charge runs counter to the founding principle of an NHS that is free at the point of use, he said, and he added: “The BMA understands that we live in financially difficult times, but this is a tax on the sick that contributes only a modest amount to the NHS is budget and does not offset the unfair disadvantage of asking the ill to pay for their medicine.”
"The extensive exemption arrangements we have in place mean that in England, around 90 per cent of prescription items are already dispensed free of charge. The price of the 12 month prescription pre-payment certificate will be frozen for the second year running. This allows people to get all the prescriptions they need for an average cost of £2 per week."