Parliament & Politics: MPs told too few pay for drugs

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A DRUG company consultant yesterday told MPs thatmany more people, including pensioners, should pay prescription charges.

Dr Heinz Redwood told an inquiry by the House of Commons Health Committee into the NHS drug bill that 85 per cent of prescriptions were now dispensed free. Back in 1980, however, only 70 per cent of prescriptions were exempt from the charge, while in 1970 the figure was 54 per cent. That upward creep in exemptions was 'one of the principal causes of the rise in the drugs bill' Dr Redwood said. It helped to explain why public spending accounted for 84 per cent of the drug bill in Britain against 65 per cent on average in Europe.

Shifting the proportion of exempt prescriptions back down to 70 per cent would raise 310m, Dr Redwood said, while returning to the 1970 figure, when 54 per cent were exempt, would bring in 640m - roughly a fifth of the 3bn NHS drug bill.

There would be exemptions for the very seriously ill, people taking multiple drugs and the poor, Dr Redwood said, and as a second stage some people could pay the full cost of their drugs. Countries poorer than Britain made people pay more, he said. In Denmark people paid up to 60 a year before becoming exempt, and in Ireland up to 300.

Labour MPs protested that the rise in exemptions had been driven by higher unemployment and the growth in pensioner numbers, not by new exempt categories being added. Dr Redwood, however, argued: 'There are very large numbers of pensioners who are quite capable of paying prescription charges certainly, and possibly also the total cost of their drugs'.

By contrast Charles Medawar, director of Social Audit, argued for an extension of the list of drugs for which the NHS will not pay. 'It should be used to restrict purchase of drugs which give poor value for money,' he said, including ceasing to pay for 200 or so drugs designated in the British National Formulary as 'less suitable for prescribing'. Generic, non-brand name, drugs, which could be between two and twenty times cheaper, should be substituted for branded products wherever possible.

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