Patients could be charged for walking sticks, crutches, neck braces and other equipment, according to plans drawn up for an NHS body.
NHS South Warwickshire’s clinical commissioning group (CCG) described the idea as a “very early-stage” proposal.
It was discussed last week at a meeting at which Sue Lear, a “service design and innovation” official working on behalf of the CCG, said it was keen to cut the annual bill of £421,000 for orthotics, The Guardian reported. She listed 15 types of devices which patients could be charged to use.
In a presentation to elected patient representative, Ms Lear said: “Would it be reasonable to ask people to contribute to the cost of orthotics, aids and appliances?
“If so, which items and how could we agree this? If so, what criteria should be applied, eg low-cost items below a specified threshold?”
In addition to sticks, crutches and braces, various splints, trusses for hernias, supports for the spine after a fracture, helmets, grab handles, bath seats and equipment to help people use the toilet could also be charged for, she suggested.
The idea was widely condemned.
Christina McAnea, of the union Unison, said: “Charging patients for essential items such as crutches is the thin end of the wedge. Where do we go from here?”
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “Charging for essential equipment is counter-productive and unfair and will also jeopardise independence by putting some people off getting essential equipment.”
And Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said: “The NHS is facing a tough economic climate, but charging patients for important medical equipment is completely the wrong way to tackle the health service's financial challenges.
“If walking sticks, knee braces or other items are issued to patients it is because there is a clear clinical need for them. They can significantly reduce pain and improve a patient's wellbeing. By attaching a charge to these items, we run the risk that vulnerable people, especially the growing numbers of people over 70, and those in low incomes, will not be able to afford them.”
NHS England said its services were “free of charge, except in limited circumstances sanctioned by parliament”.
A spokeswoman for the CCG said a number of ideas on how to save money had been discussed at the meeting “in particular helpful comments about the equipment returns process and whether charging for equipment should be considered”.
“This has not been discussed further within the CCG since the meeting and no proposals exist to develop this further,” she added.