The cost of a single prescription has been raised 25 pence to £7.10 as of April 1 this year, marking the tenth consecutive year that the increase has been kept below or around the level of inflation, the government has announced.

According to Health Minister Dawn Primarolo, the extra 25 pence will help to push funds generated from prescription charges to around £435 million in the next financial year, representing “valuable income” that can be sunk straight back into improving National Health Service provision.

Currently, only around 12% of patients in England actually pay for their prescription charges at the point of dispensing, but given that all NHS patients in Wales get their medicines for free and that the Scottish Executive also plans to phase out charges by 2011, the move will likely re-ignite the debate over fragmentation and regionalisation of the Service across the UK.

Michael Summers, vice chair of the Patient’s Association, told PharmaTimes UK News: “We’re very disappointed and surprised that the government has authorised another increase in prescription charges in England, particularly as in Wales charges have been scrapped and Scotland plans to do the same,” and he added that the Association was hoping that the government would follow the rest of the UK in getting rid of the charges, particularly as recent evidence shows that many patients are failing to pick up their prescriptions because they can’t afford to.

There have been growing calls for the government to take a closer look at the current system of charging for medicines dished out on the NHS. Paul Bennett, Chairman of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain’s English Pharmacy Board, stressed that a review is urgently needed because the current system is “illogical and unfair”.

He claims there are “clear disadvantages under existing arrangements, particularly for non-exempt patients who require long-term medication for multiple chronic conditions”, but added that, while there is a case for scrapping prescription charges in England, the implications of such move are “considerable and should be considered very carefully in light of the likely impact on patients, professionals and the public purse”.

Barrier to health?
And just last week UK charity Citizens Advice urged a review of prescription charges following the results of a survey it commissioned by Ipsos MORI, which revealed that as many as 800,000 people in England chose not to collect a prescription last year because of the cost involved, and that the figures have not improved since the first such survey was undertaken in 2001.

Describing prescription charges as a “barrier to health”, the charity stressed that poorer people with chronic illnesses are not getting access to their treatments because they cannot afford to pay for them, and warned that, the longer the government delays a review (as recommended by the Health Select Committee back in July 2006), the more people are putting their health at risk.

But in an emailed statement to PharmaTimes UK News last week the DH stressed that abolishing prescription charges would "significantly reduce the money available to deliver other health priorities”.