A coalition of UK charities is lobbying the government to act to make prescriptions free for people with long-term medical conditions. One year ago, the government promised to consult the public on prescription charges following a report by its own Health Select Committee in 2006.

Yet, say the charities, the government has failed to find out the true cost of prescription charges and the review appears to have stalled. Hundreds of thousands of patients are consequently risking their health because of an inability to pay for prescriptions, believed to be about 800,000.

People with most long-term conditions currently have to pay prescription charges unless they qualify for free prescriptions on the basis of age or income, or have one of the few medical conditions that are exempt. The list of medical conditions that entitle patients to free prescriptions was drawn up in 1968 and has not changed since.

How would free prescriptions be funded?
The National Health Service could save millions if it purchased and GPs prescribed generic drugs rather than expensive branded drugs, with the Office of Fair Trading’s report on the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme earlier this year identifying potential savings in the region of £500 million from some major drug categories - far more than the £430 million raised by prescription charges. The NHS can also do more to reduce drug wastage, say the charities; indeed a recent National Audit Office report estimated the cost of drug wastage to the NHS of at least £100 million.

When patients cannot take essential medicines there is a hidden cost to the NHS if their conditions worsen and as a result they end up in hospital, they add. Therefore, improving access to medication could create savings within primary care if more people were able to manage their conditions effectively.

In April this year, prescription charges rose 25 pence to £7.10.