Prescription charges for cancer patients in England are to be abolished next year, and eventually all patients with long-term conditions will receive their medicines for free, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced.

About a quarter of a million cancer patients will no longer pay the £7.10 per item prescription charge from next April, and around five million will eventually become exempt when all those with long-term conditions are also covered, the Prime Minister told Labour’s annual conference in Manchester this week.

The measure is expected to cost about £20 million in the first year, rising to £300 million annually when all long-term conditions are included. It will be paid for by National Health Service (NHS) drugs budget savings generated through increased bulk-buying and greater use of generics rather than branded products.

"Because we know that almost every British family has been touched by cancer, [Health Secretary] Alan Johnson and I know we must do more to relieve the financial worry that so often goes alongside the heartache, so our plan is next year to abolish all prescription charges for everyone with cancer,” Mr Brown told the conference. “In the long term, as the NHS generates cash savings in its drugs budget, we will plough them back into abolishing charges for all patients with long-term conditions," he added.

The change, which will require legislative action, will be achieved by adding cancer to the list of medical conditions for which patients are eligible for certificates exempting them from prescription charges. The government says it will consult with clinicians, patient groups and other stakeholders on the exemption of other long-term conditions.

Patient groups in England have been campaigning strongly for the abolition of prescription charges, and the announcement was described as “great news” by Samia al Quadhi, chief executive of the charity Breast Cancer Care, who said: “Patients have had to make appalling choices between paying for what may be years of follow-up treatment or their household bills. Nearly half of breast cancer patients told us they had experienced financial difficulties after being forced to pay prescription charges for their treatment, and 15% had not taken the drugs they desperately need because of the cost.”

Representatives of other patient groups urged the government to work quickly to get the exemption extended beyond cancer treatment to other conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the MS Society, pointed out that the financial burden of paying for drugs “is the last thing you need when you have a condition like MS. We will be very keen to find out how and when this is going to happen - the sooner the better,” he said.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB) also welcomed the move but sounded a note of caution. Beth Taylor, who chairs the Society’s English Pharmacy Board, warned that generating cash savings from the NHS drugs budget “may not be as easy as [the Prime Minister] thinks.”

His promise to exempt all patients with long-term conditions should not be conditional on such savings, she said, adding: “patients should not have to pay if the NHS fails to deliver savings in the drugs budget.”

Funds for the NHS in England arising from the prescription charge totalled £430 million in 2006-7 and are expected to raise £435 million in 2008-9, says the Department of Health. Currently, patients who purchase a three-month or 12-month prescription payment certificate (PPC) can get all their medicines for less than £2.00 a week, while people on low incomes who are not automatically exempt are eligible for help through the NHS Low Income Scheme. However, 88% of all prescription items are currently dispensed free of charge.

Change urged in Northern Ireland

Meantime, following Mr Brown’s announcement and with prescription charges having already been abolished in Wales and the Scottish government pledging to end them by 2011, patient groups in Northern Ireland are urging their government to follow suit.

"We believe it is morally wrong for cancer patients in Northern Ireland - and there are more than 50,000 people living with cancer here – to pay for their prescriptions when patients in the rest of UK don't have to," said Heather Monteverde of Macmillan Cancer Support in Northern Ireland.