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EPB chair slams government plan to lift free prescription age to 66

The English Pharmacy Board chair Thorrun Govind has criticised government plans to raise the age for free prescriptions from 60 to 66 and warned such a move will lead to greater health inequalities.

Ministers are currently consulting on a proposal which would bring free prescriptions in line with the state pension age (SPA). The consultation is open for eight weeks until August 26 with the preferred method of response being via an online questionnaire.

Ms Govind said she was “deeply concerned” that more people could be forced to “make choices about their health based on their ability to pay”.

“The proposal to raise the age at which people can access free prescriptions from 60 to 66 means that many more people will be affected by this tax on the sick at exactly the time at which they may be needing more medicines,” she said.

“It is unacceptable to raise the cost of prescriptions in the current economic situation when many have been disadvantaged by the pandemic. Such proposals will only further drive health inequalities that have been highlighted by Covid-19.”

Ms Govind said pharmacists were being asked by patients every day whether there were any items on their prescriptions “they could do without”, and warned the proposal will mean a greater number of older people being forced to decide which medicines they think they do not need.

“Patients shouldn't have to make choices which involve rationing their medicines. No-one should be faced with a financial barrier to getting the medicines they need,” she said. “Reducing access to medicines leads to worsening health and expensive hospital admissions, the cost of which should be set against any income from prescription charges.

“The list of long-term conditions which are exempt from charges have barely changed since 1968 and fails to include many conditions that are prevalent today. As a result, people of working age with long-term conditions are disproportionately affected by prescription charges.”

She called for an urgent review and an “overhaul” of prescription charges in England to support “people facing long-term and increasing medication costs”.

In England out of 1.1 billion items dispensed in 2018, almost 90 per cent were free of charge. Almost 63 per cent of all items were dispensed free of charge because the patient was aged 60 or over. 

Data from NHS BSA shows 95 per cent of 60 to 65-year olds use at least one prescription per year. However, the Department of Health estimates that 38 per cent of people in the 60-65 age group would qualify for an exemption other than age, with the majority of these being a medical exemption.

The government is consulting on two options. Option A is to raise the qualifying age for free prescriptions to the SPA of 66 years for everyone. This would mean that people aged 65 and under would have to pay for their prescriptions until they reach the age of 66, unless they qualified for another exemption. 

Under this option individuals aged 60-65 who don’t qualify for another exemption could face an average annual cost of £50 to £100 depending on their medicine use and method of payment. The NHS would raise on average £226m per year from extra prescription charges over ten years.

Option B is to raise the qualifying age for free prescriptions to the SPA but with a period of protection, which would mean that people in the age range 60-65 would continue to receive free prescriptions. Anyone aged 60 and over when the changes are implemented would continue to be exempt from charges, whereas those aged 59 and under would have to pay for their prescriptions until they reach the SPA, unless they qualified for another exemption.

The NHS would raise on average £174m per year from extra prescription charges over ten years under option B, suggests an impact assessment published alongside the consultation.

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