As many as 150,000 cancer patients in England are expected to save up to £100 a year under the new free prescriptions scheme which starts on April 1. People can start applying for their free drugs from today.

The new scheme, which was announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the Labour Party’s annual conference in September last year, abolishes the £7.10 per item National Health Service (NHS) prescription charge for everyone undergoing treatment for cancer, the effects of cancer or the effects of cancer treatment. It is expected to reduce income from prescription charges by around £15-£20 million in the first year, rising to £300 million annually when all patients with long-term conditions (around five million in England) are included in the scheme.

Mr Brown told the Party conference that the scheme will be paid for by NHS drugs budget savings generated through increased bulk-buying and greater use of generics rather than branded products.

From today, all cancer patients are entitled to apply for a five-year exemption certificate, which will entitle them to all their NHS prescriptions free of charge, not just those relating to cancer. The certificate can be renewed as many times as necessary and will not have to be returned if the patient's condition changes. Applications received by March 24 will be processed in time to be used for April 1, and Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo has urged patients to make an appointment with their GP from this week to talk about applying for their exemption certificate.

It is believed that the exemptions will only apply to medicines which the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has approved for use on the NHS.

The move, which has long been called for by patient and charity groups, was welcomed by Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, as “absolutely the right thing to do. Cancer not only threatens your life, but can also make you poor. Free prescriptions will transform the lives of thousands of people living with cancer who were struggling to pay for drugs.”

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), is currently leading a consultation on how the free-drug scheme will be extended, including which long-term conditions will be covered.

- Around 60% of the English population do not pay prescription charges because of their age, they have an income-related exemption or they have a specified medical condition. 88.6% of prescription items are already dispensed in the community free of charge.

Prescription charges have already been abolished completely in Wales, while elsewhere in the UK they are being phased out, with Scotland pledging to end them completely by 2011 and Northern Ireland by 2010.