Chemist who sold cheap medicine vows to fight on

Prescription row: Traders, customers and doctors defend controversial Welsh 'saint' who was fined pounds 550 for undercutting NHS
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NICHOLAS TIMMINS

Public Policy Editor

A Welsh pharmacist who has been selling patients medicines privately when they cost less than the pounds 5.25 NHS prescription charge yesterday vowed to fight on after being fined pounds 550 by a disciplinary panel.

Allan Sharpe, of Newbridge in Gwent, who is described by some patients as "a saint", vowed to carry on as pending his appeal to the Welsh Office. He said: "I stand by what I did."

The National Pharmaceutical Association, the chemists' trade body, said it would support an appeal to the High Court and to Europe if the Welsh Office confirms the decision of the Mid-Glamorgan Family Health Services Authority that Mr Sharpe was in breach of his terms and conditions of service by dispensing medicines privately on NHS prescription forms.

Mr Sharpe said: "I hope the eventual outcome will give pharmacists the freedom to deal fairly with their patients who should also have the right to prescriptions at a price they can afford."

He has been dispensing about 200 items a month privately when the cost of the drugs would be less than the charge. Yesterday he cited a survey claiming that 70 per cent of prescription items cost less than the pounds 5.25 charge and that 30 per cent cost less than pounds 1. The Department of Health maintains that only a little under 50 per cent of prescription drugs cost less than the NHS charge.

The decision brought calls for a review of prescription charges from the British Medical Association, the NPA and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, all of whom would like the charge abolished.

Since 1979, when the Conservative government took office, prescription fees have risen from 20p to today's pounds 5.25 as it has used the charge to raise increasing sums for the NHS. While the charge has increased 26- fold, NHS spending has risen five fold. Had the charge increased in line with prices, it would now be only 55p.

Doctors and pharmacists said yesterday that people on incomes just too high to receive free prescriptions are increasingly asking which item they do not need when prescribed two, three or four medicines. One in seven prescriptions are now not cashed, according to the BMA, while the NPA said failure to take prescribed medicines could lead to higher costs if people remained ill, re-visited the doctor or ended up in hospital.

The Department of Health argued that doctors could prescribe privately for patients if need be, but the BMA said its legal advice was that GPs would be in breach of their terms and conditions of service if they did so. It argued the solution was to alter pharmacists contracts to allow them to do what Mr Sharpe has been doing.

Mr Sharpe has received more than 1,000 letters of support from patients, GPs and other pharmacists over his stand.

Margaret Beckett, the shadow health secretary, avoided comment, but Alex Carlile, the Liberal Democrats health spokesman, said it was "quite unjust" for Mr Sharpe to be fined "for acting in the best interests of his customers."

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