Prescription charges are to be increased to £6.50 per item by John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, a move which risks undermining Labour's pre-election attack on the Tories over health charges.
The 10p rise, to be announced on Thursday by Mr Reid, will take the total increase to 70p since Labour came to power in 1997 and leaves the Government open to a charge of hypocrisy.
Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "This increase in prescription charges is a tax on ill-health. Prescription charges fall particularly heavily on those who just fail to meet the exemption criteria. These people may not be poor enough to qualify for exemption, but may still be put off getting their medicines because of charges."
He added: "Poorer patients could be forgiven for asking what the point of going to the doctor is, when charges may prevent them from getting the prescription made up."
Earl Howe, the Tory spokesman on health in the Lords, said: "It is outrageous and untrue for the Labour Party to claim that we are proposing charging patients for having access to the NHS. Under Labour, the prescription charge has now risen to a serious sum of money. We would have a root and branch review of the whole system." He added: "A number of elderly people have said to me, 'I can afford to pay for my prescription charge but I am given a free prescription'. That is an argument we would need to look at - why should rich people be subsidised? It is people in need that should be subsidised."
Any suggestion that pensioners could be robbed of their exemption from charges, however wealthy they may be, is certain to be seized on by Labour to hit back at the Tories. Ministers have shown no stomach for reforming the system.
The Labour MP Joan Walley called last week for asthma sufferers to be excluded from the charges, but Rosie Winterton, a Health minister, said there were no plans to change the system because there was no consensus over who should be exempt.
More than 80 per cent of patients pay no charge, because they are covered by exemptions. But the anomalies have caused anger among patients who do not qualify for exemption from the charges.
Under the current system, the exemptions include children under 16, anyone aged 60 or over, students up to 18, anyone on income support on jobseeker's allowance and those with a range of ailments such as diabetes and epilepsy. They do not include cancer or many chronic illnesses such as asthma.
The charge was last increased by 10p to £6.40 on 1 April last year, raising £462m for the NHS in England in 2004-05. Prescription charges in Wales have been frozen at £6 since 2000 and will be reduced to £5 in October and phased out altogether by 2007.
* NHS hospitals are castigated today by the Labour-led Commons Select Committee on Health for failing to use cheap drugs to prevent venous thromboembolism (VTE) which kills an estimated 25,000 people a year.
The Labour chairman of the committee, David Hinchliffe said: "Hospital staff and medics are not aware of the extent of VTE. I find it shocking that this has been allowed to go unchecked for so long."Reuse content