People in Wales are asking their general practitioners to prescribe over-the-counter medications, including head-lice cream for everyone in their family, and are now requesting more prescription items than they did before the Welsh government abolished prescription charges exactly a year ago, according to a new survey of GPs.

These findings were published yesterday by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, who say they are not surprised by the “abuse” of the policy which the study reveals. Out of more than 130 GPs who responded to the survey, one third also said that their appointment numbers had gone up since the charges were abolished, which means more people are finding it difficult to see their GP, said the Welsh party’s health spokeswoman, Jenny Randerson.

The £30-million cost of implementing the policy should have been targeted at those in greatest need, and this would have included the Lib-Dems’ idea of enlarging the list of chronic conditions which are eligible for free prescriptions, she added.

Wales’ Chief Medical Officer, Tony Jewell, pointed out that GPs have always been able to prescribe OTCs when they judge them to be necessary. The introduction of free prescriptions is a long-term investment aimed at reducing cost and pressures on the National Health Service, and the policy is being monitored as a matter of routine, said Dr Jewell.

Nevertheless, the Welsh Conservative party also attacked the measure, when it was reported last month that the number of prescriptions dispensed in Wales reached 62.1 million last year, an increase of 5% from 58.9 million in 2006 when the charge per item was £3.00. “I accept that the number of prescriptions dispensed has risen in recent years. However, it is clear from these figures that the policy of free prescriptions is impacting on the number of items dispensed by pharmacists,” said the party’s health spokesman, Jonathan Morgan.

“Money which should have been spent on treating chronically ill patients and providing access to modern medicines has been wasted on prescriptions for the likes of Bonjela and athlete’s foot powder,” said Mr Morgan, and he called on the Assembly government to explain now “how much this policy is now costing - and what it is expected to cost in future years.”

The government must also look at the issue of medicines wastage - a key issue raised by pharmacists before charges were abolished, said Mr Morgan, who added that if the Assembly government was not willing to hold a review, then the Conservatives will hold their own.

Scotland starts move to free Rxs
Meantime, Scotland has today (April 1) taken its first step towards the total abolition of prescription charges in April 2011, by reducing the cost of a single prescription item to £5.00 from £6.85.

The move towards abolition will be gradual, with further reductions over the next three years, and is expected to cost some £50 million. However, from today the costs to patients with long-term conditions are reduced by 51%, as the Prescription Prepayment Certificate - which allows them to pay for four months worth of unlimited prescriptions at a time - goes down from £35.85 to £17, while the PPC for 12 months’ worth of medicines is reduced from £98.70 to £48.

This will benefit chronically-ill patients who have to pay for their prescriptions because their illnesses – which include arthritis, asthma, cancer, cystic fibrosis, chronic heart disease HIV/AIDS and Parkinson’s – are not on the official list of chronic conditions which exempt patients from paying prescription charges.

It is estimated that around 75,000 prescriptions annually are not filled in Scotland for reasons of cost, even through most Scots do not have to pay for their prescriptions.