Rise in prescription charges condemned

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The Independent Online
WIDESPREAD condemnation greeted the announcement yesterday that prescription charges are to rise by 50p, to pounds 4.25, and patients' contributions towards dental treatment will rise from 75 to 80 per cent from April, taking the maximum payable from pounds 225 to pounds 250.

The increase in prescription charges is the 15th rise since 1979 - when the charge was 20p - and represents an annual rise of more than 13 per cent.

The increases were condemned by consumer, pharmacists' and dentists' groups and by the Opposition as an unjustifiable burden on people who were ill or in need of dental care. They also predicted that people who could not afford to pay for several prescription items at once may make potentially dangerous decisions about which medicines to forgo.

Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Minister for Health, revealed the increases in a written parliamentary answer. He said that charging pounds 4.25 per item will raise about pounds 278m a year for the National Health Service, while the cost of drugs for Family Health Services was more than pounds 2.3bn.

Charges for equipment or appliances such as elastic stockings and tights, fabric supports and wigs supplied through the Hospital Service will also rise by about 13 per cent. The cost of prescription pre-payment certificates, for people who need frequent or extensive medication but are not entitled to free prescriptions, will also rise by just over 13 per cent. These will now cost pounds 22 for four months and pounds 60.60 for 12 months.

The value of vouchers given to people who need certain types of optical care will increase by 2.75 per cent. Mr Mawhinney said 80 per cent of prescriptions were free - children, expectant and nursing mothers, pensioners and people on Income Support or Family Credit did not pay. But Tim Astill, director of the National Pharmaceutical Association, which represents 10,000 retail pharmacies, said people who were exempt from paying accounted for 80 per cent of prescriptions, but almost 50 per cent of the population did pay.

David Coleman, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, which represents 38,000 pharmacists, said the rise 'would force more patients on multiple medication to make their own, potentially dangerous, decisions about which medicines to forgo. This could lead to a second visit to their GP or if their untreated condition deteriorated, even costly hospital treatment'.

A Consumers' Association spokesman said: 'Despite the recent trend for the Government to raise prescription charges above the rate of inflation this increase of 13.3 per cent is bigger than anybody expected. It is eight times more than the rate of inflation. People who pay for their prescriptions are going to find it harder and harder to find the money for essential medicines.'

The British Dental Association said the move demonstrated 'the lack of commitment on the part of the Government to maintaining dentistry within the NHS as their contribution falls to less than a quarter'.

Defending the increases, Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, said: 'Charges have been part of the NHS for many years . . . There are very generous safeguards.'