General practitioners in Wales are abusing the country’s free prescription programme by prescribing over-the-counter treatments for conditions such as hay fever, athlete’s foot and mouth ulcers for their patients, the Conservative Party has claimed.

“There is no reason why doctors should be prescribing something like Bonjela [for ulcers] or Vaseline [for sores] when it is readily available over-the-counter. Prescriptions should be used for the drugs patients need to combat viruses or nasty illnesses,” said Welsh Shadow Health Minister Jonathan Morgan. People will be “astonished” to hear that GPs are indeed prescribing such OTCs, he went on, but added: “This is exactly the sort of abuse [the Tories] warned against when charges were abolished.”

Wales ended the £3 charge last April 1, and prescription numbers are reported to have increased 6% in April and May, but community pharmacy representatives say it is too early see any defined trend. They also point out that GPs have always had the discretion to prescribe OTCs, and that people who are now entitled to free prescriptions are aged 25-60, generally with reasonable incomes and are infrequent users of the health services. In contrast, the 85% of people who were already entitled to free prescriptions before April are traditionally the heaviest service users.

The number of prescriptions written in Wales rose 4% to 59.1 million during 2006-7, with average per capita use of prescription drugs reaching 19.1 items at a cost of £187.14 per head, according to new figures from the Local Health Boards.

Welsh “no” to Parkinson’s, cancer drugs

The Welsh Assembly has put the cost of providing free prescriptions to everyone in Wales at £29.5 million, and the OTC prescribing row has been fanned by the news that the August 15 meeting of the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group turned down the use of Pfizer’s kidney cancer drug Sutent (sunitinib) and Solvay’s Parkinson’s disease treatment Duodopa (levodopa and carbidopa) on the National Health Service in Wales. The AWMSG did, however, back the use of two HIV/AIDS treatments - Boehringer Ingelheim’s Aptivus (tiprinavir) and Prezista (darunavir), which is made by Ortho Biotech’s Tibotech division.

Opposition Assembly Members responded that they were concerned that money was being diverted away from expensive, life-saving treatments by the abolition of prescription charges, but Assembly spokesmen dismissed their fears and described the free-prescription program as a long-term investment which would ultimately reduce costs and pressure on the health services.

Nevertheless, Welsh Conservatives “remain of the view that the free prescriptions policy needs to be properly monitored, levels of medicines wastage assessed and patients made aware of their responsibilities,” said the Tories’ Mr Morgan.