The British Medical Association says England should follow in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales by scrapping National Health Service prescription charges.

The call was spurred by the Department of Health’s current review of long-term conditions, such as diabetes, that are exempt from prescription charges, but according to the BMA extending this list “without a fundamental overhaul” of the system will only serve to “create a new set of arbitrary ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.”

The Association slams the current system for being “outdated, iniquitous, and detrimental to the health of many patients”, and points out that only 11% of prescriptions currently attract a charge anyway, a number set to decline further when plans to scrap prescription charges for cancer patients go ahead.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of Council at the BMA, stressed that, while providing free medicines for those with long-term illnesses is “a laudable aim”, it does not go far enough to ensure a fair system for all patients.

“Making the list of exemptions longer will not make it fairer. Ultimately, we could end up with a situation where only a tiny proportion of prescriptions attract a charge, which would be nonsensical,” he warned, and added that getting rid of the charges altogether is the “fairest and the simplest option”.

According to the Association, prescription charges can be a significant barrier to patients taking essential medication, and it argues that dumping them could also cut down hospital admissions and reduce the time taken for sick leave from work.

Valuable income
The Welsh Assembly now picks up the tab for all NHS prescription charges in Wales, while the Scottish Executive is also phasing out charges in Scotland with a view to taking over the drugs bill completely in 2011.

And it seems the general public is also behind a similar move in England, as a poll conducted by the BBC last year found that three-quarters of people believe England should scrap the charges. However, the Department of Health has argued that funds raised for the NHS by the charge cannot be given up as they represent valuable income that can be sunk straight back into improving the Service.

“In England, 89% of prescription items are dispensed for free, the remainder provide valuable income to the NHS of £437 million in 2009/10, which goes towards to the safety and speed of healthcare,” noted Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo.

“But we are making the system fairer,” she stressed. “Cancer patients will be eligible for free prescriptions from 1st April this year and we're looking at how we can do the same for people with long-term conditions.”