The controversial suggestion by Conservative MP Nick Boles that wealthy elderly patients should not be receiving free prescriptions has not gone down well with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

In a speech to independent research and policy group The Resolution Foundation, Boles argued that well-off pensioners should not receive benefits such as free prescriptions, bus passes and TV licenses during the current climate of austerity.

Spending on benefits for the elderly, including the winter fuel allowance and free prescriptions, bus travel and TV licenses for the over 75s, hit nearly £4 billion in 2010/11, he pointed out.

And in his address, Boles, who is former director of think-tank Policy Exchange, asked "does anyone here think it would be responsible for a country in our financial position to go on giving a free TV license to Michael Winner, free prescriptions to Lord Sugar and a winter fuel allowance to Sir Paul McCartney after 2015?"

However, hitting back at the proposal to end free prescriptions for better-off pensioners, Shilpa Gohil, Chair of the English Pharmacy Board, said that "taxing health based on wealth is wrong".

"People over 60 typically require more medicines than most to maintain a good quality of life and should not be penalised because of their circumstances." 

In addition, she argues that prescription charges are already a barrier to treatment access, regardless of income size, and notes that "if you need medicines to help you live well you should get them on the same basis as everyone else in your age group". 

There is also the danger that introducing charges for wealthier pensioners may lead them to be more selective about which medicines to purchase, which could lead to "inadequate treatment, worsening health and expensive hospital admissions, the cost of which must be set against any cost-savings from charges", she said.

Scots abusing free prescriptions?

Elsewhere, the Scottish Conservatives have reportedly collected evidence which they claim shows abuse of the free prescription service - introduced by the SNP government last year.

The Tories are alleging that patients are persuading GPs to write scripts for everyday items such as plasters and toothpaste, and that pharmacists are advising patients on how to get freebies on the National Health Service instead of buying them over the counter, which has fueled a surge in the Scottish medicines bill.

Figures from the NHS Information Services Division (ISD) released earlier this year indeed show that the total cost of prescribing in Scotland grew 3.2% to £1.18 billion in 2011-12, while the number of items prescribed climbed 3.8% to 94.6 million.

However, speaking on BBC Radio Scotland earlier this week, Aileen Bryson, RPSGB Practice and Policy Lead, stressed that the growing number of items dispensed in pharmacies is mainly because of the ageing population, an increased focus on preventative medicine, and the expanding prevalence of long-term conditions. 

“No system is perfect but the current policy does address the old problem of patients not being able to afford medicine," she said, and added that, according to numbers from the ISD, "the increase in the cost and volume of items dispensed this year is in line with all other years from 2001".

But she did concede that "public information campaigns on the appropriate use of the Minor Ailment Service and training for GPs and pharmacists to deal with inappropriate requests for prescribing would be helpful".