Doctors in Wales are calling on the government to totally drop prescription charges in England rather than merely extend the list of exempt patients, to help promote a fairer National Health Service.

The Department of Health is currently reviewing the list of long-term illnesses which free patients from having to pay for their prescriptions in England, but given that in Wales and, from 2011, in Scotland prescriptions are free for all patients campaigners argue that the current system is unfair at best and potentially dangerous at worst.

The renewed call from the BMA comes as the abolishment of prescription charges in Wales approaches its second anniversary. “It is ridiculous that for two years now patients in Wales have been able to visit their GP, without worry or fear of being able to meet the cost of any subsequent medication needed, when those same patients, who can be just a few miles across the border in England, have to pay an increased cost each year,” commented Dr Richard Lewis, Welsh Secretary of the BMA.

According to Lewis, dropping the charges altogether is the “fairest and the simplest option” because in the current system some patients needing medication over a prolonged period of time may not be included in the exemption list while others, who have low incomes but earn just enough to put them over the financial threshold, are also being penalised.

“It’s at this point that prescription charges can act as a disincentive to taking essential medication,” Lewis stressed, and he also argues that abolishing charges altogether could benefit society as well as individual patients. “For example, it could reduce hospital admissions, and help people return to work more quickly following illness,” he said.

‘Outdated, iniquitous and detrimental
Earlier this month the BMA slammed the current system for being “outdated, iniquitous, and detrimental to the health of many patients”, and a poll conducted by the BBC last year found that three-quarters of public also believe charges should be scrapped in England too so that there is a more uniform health service across the nation.

However, the DH argued that funds raised for the NHS by the charge represent valuable income that can be sunk straight back into improving the Service. And others opposing the move have voiced concern that a system of free prescriptions is open to abuse, with doctors dishing out scripts for products - such as Bonjela and Calpol - that should be purchased over the counter by the patient instead.

This last claim has, however, been refuted by Lewis: “The argument used by some critics of free prescriptions that millionaires are using them to pick up items like Bonjela for free, doesn’t really stand up,” he said, explaining that statistics show almost a third (20.3 million) of prescriptions in Wales are for cardiovascular diseases, while a further 19% (11.5 million) are for central nervous system disorders.

According to Lewis, what these figures show is that doctors are placing a greater emphasis on the prevention of long-term conditions, as GPs are prescribing more drugs to help manage illnesses and therefore keep patients out of hospital, reducing the strain on the NHS. “And that’s why I urge health chiefs in England to follow the example set by Wales”, he stressed.