UK charity Citizens Advice is urging the government to carry out a review of National Health Service prescription charges as it says they are proving to be a “barrier to health”.

The charity is basing its claims on 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.

Citizens Advice stresses that poorer people with chronic illnesses are not getting access to their treatments because they cannot afford to pay for them, and warns that, the longer the government delays a review of prescription charges, as recommended by the Health Select Committee back in July 2006, the more people are putting their health at risk.

Moreover, although the number of patients failing to pick up their drugs has stayed flat since 2001, the charity claims the situation looks set to worsen when the Employment Support Allowance replaces Incapacity Benefit in October this year, “as this will result in more people on low incomes and in poor health also losing automatic entitlement to free prescriptions”.

“The Government says it recognises the links between poverty and ill health [but] the Department of Health’s extraordinary delay in starting the consulting process has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people not being able to afford the treatments they need,” commented Citizens Advice head David Harker.

Late last year, the Scottish Executive announced plans to abolish NHS prescription charges by 2011 to help tackle health inequalities, while, in Wales, NHS patients started receiving free medication from April 2007. “Progress in Wales and Scotland has raised the stakes,” Harker added. “It is essential that there is now urgent action to finally eliminate prescription poverty in England.”

88% free anyway
But the DH argues that exemption arrangements currently in place mean that, in England, 88% of prescription items are dispensed free of charge anyway. "And anyone may obtain all the prescriptions they need if they buy a prescription prepayment certificate which works out at less than £2.00 per week", a spokesperson explained.

In an emailed statement, the DH stressed that "prescription charges provide a valuable contribution to the NHS in England, estimated to be £430 million for 2006-7", and that abolishing them would "significantly reduce the money available to deliver other health priorities".