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Prescription fees increase branded 'tax on the sick': Charges to rise by six times the rate of inflation

PRESCRIPTION charges will shoot up by another 50p to pounds 4.75 from 1 April - a rise six times the rate of inflation - while the help the least well-off get towards spectacles is to be increased only in line with rising prices.

The 50p increase announced yesterday was condemned as a 'tax on the sick' by doctors and pharmacists' leaders and by the Labour Party.

Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of council of the British Medical Association, said: 'All doctors have anecdotal evidence of patients asking which of two or more items on a prescription form are the most important as they cannot afford to pay for more than one at a time.

'With each appalling rise in prescription charges our concern is more and more patients will be dissuaded from visiting the doctors when they are ill.'

Dr Macara's criticism was echoed by Nicholas Wood, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, who said that with three medicines costing more than pounds 14, 'pharmacists are put into the invidious position of having to decide with the patient which of the medicines to take'.

The Royal College of Nursing said: 'It is deplorable that this rise is well above the rate of inflation. Many thousands of families across the country will face a deterrent to the health care they need.

'Research shows that increasing patient charges leads to a reduction in the use of health services.'

About 80 per cent of items are dispensed free against about 60 per cent when the Government took office, Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Minister for Health, said as he announced the increase, and the pounds 292m of 'much needed' revenue that charges will raise compared to last year's drug bill of pounds 2.6bn.

Dr Mawhinney added that the pounds 292m raised was the equivalent of providing 71,000 hip replacements or 221,000 cataract removals.

He told MPs: 'No child, no expectant or nursing mother, no state retirement pensioner, and no person on Income Support or Family Credit is affected by the 50p increase in the prescription charge.'

However, David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, attacked the 'outrageous' increase and protested that individuals just above income support would be hardest hit. Two in five of the population were liable to charges, he said.

Mr Blunkett said prescription charges had risen more than 2,275 per cent since the Tories came to power in 1979.

'Today's rise is six times the rate of inflation. The Government is asking patients to fund its own econonomic incompetence.'

About 38 per cent of items next year will cost less than the prescription charge, according to the Department of Health, although patients will not be able to buy most of them as they are prescription-only medicines.

The average total cost of an NHS prescription is expected to be pounds 8.44 against the pounds 4.75 charge.

The maximum charge for dental treatment will rise from pounds 250 to pounds 275 - a 10 per cent increase - while the value of spectacle vouchers will rise on average by 4 per cent.

From April, the four-month season ticket will cost pounds 24.60, and a 12-month ticket pounds 67.70, an increase of pounds 7.10.