Labour to put up prescriptions

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PRESCRIPTION charges will be raised by 15p to pounds 5.80 from April despite unrest on the Labour back benches over government proposals to reform the welfare state.

It is the first increase in prescription charges since Labour came to power last May and is likely to lead to criticism that the charge is now so high that it is hitting those on low incomes who do not qualify for exemptions.

Labour repeatedly attacked the Tories for raising prescription charges as a "tax on the sick" throughout their 18 years in office from 20p to its present level of pounds 5.65.

Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, is hoping the criticism of the increase will be muted as it is below the 3.6 rate of inflation, and in line with last year's 15p increase by the Tories.

The rise in prescription charges under pressure from the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, will intensify the pressure on Mr Dobson to sweeten the pill by announcing the restoration of free eye-tests and free dental check- ups in the summer after a fundamental review of all NHS charges - which are a highly sensitive issue for the Government.

Labour avoided making any pledges to cut prescription charges in its general election manifesto, after abandoning earlier commitments to abolish them, but Mr Dobson ran into flak last year when he was unable to rule out new charges because of the comprehensive review.

The review will be looking at cutting the exemptions to prescription charges, which include all pensioners, those on income support, those receiving jobseeker's allowance, children and pregnant women.

Better-off pensioners could be required to pay for prescriptions, which may be means-tested and limited to those who are on low incomes.

Ministers have privately ruled out introducing charges for visiting the GP, although it was supported by a majority of family doctors in an attempt to cut out time-wasting by patients. Also ruled out are hospital "hotel" charges to pay for bed and food.

Mr Dobson said Labour would not break its manifesto pledge to provide health care "available to all, according to need, free at the point of use". Charging for visits to the doctor would have broken that promise.

Charges are an important part of the NHS budget. The prescription charge raises around pounds 310m a year, but is heavily outweighed by the bill for free prescriptions, which amounts to around pounds 1.3bn. Around 80 per cent of all prescriptions are free, because they are covered by exemptions.

There will also be fears among patients' groups that increasing the charge could encourage more prescription fraud. Alan Milburn, the health minister, has announced a crackdown on prescription charge fraud which is costing the National Health Service an estimated pounds 100m a year, but it has now emerged that the majority of the fraud is caused by patients claiming they are on income support. This may suggest that they cannot afford the charges, even though they do not qualify for free prescriptions.

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