The prescription charge in England rises today from £9.65 to £9.90 per item, in what the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) has called ‘a dark day for patients’.

Several pharmacy bodies have raised concerns about the impact of the charge on patients not taking medicines as prescribed due to cost, as well as on pharmacy teams' workload as 'tax collectors' for the government.

Increase will ‘hit working people on low incomes the hardest’

Condemning the ‘relentless’ annual increase in the charge, Tase Oputu, RPS chair in England, highlighted the ‘crucial role’ of medicines in helping people stay healthy and in work, ‘as the government looks to reduce spending on benefits’.

Nearly nine in 10 prescriptions in England are currently dispensed free of charge, due to eligibility criteria such as age and certain health conditions.

But Ms Oputu said that the rising cost for those who do pay, amid the cost-of-living crisis, would ‘hit working people on low incomes the hardest’.

‘This is a dark day for patients who will now have to pay nearly £10 for each item on their prescription,’ she said.

Ms Oputu described the annual increase in the prescription charge as ‘relentless’, saying it was making medicines ‘unaffordable for many’.

‘This is totally unacceptable. You can, it seems, put a price on health,’ she said.

‘Every day pharmacists are asked by patients who are unable to afford all the items in their prescription which ones they can "do without"’, Ms Oputu added, citing a recent survey jointly commissioned by the RPS and the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA).

The survey of 1,357 pharmacists in England found that 97% had encountered patients foregoing some of the medicines on a prescription due to cost.

‘No-one should face a financial barrier to getting the medicines they need to keep them well,’ Ms Oputu said.

And she highlighted the ‘crucial role’ that medicines play in ‘helping people stay healthy and in work’.

The RPS England chair called for prescription charges to be scrapped in England, ‘as they have been in the rest of the UK’.

A Healthwatch England report published yesterday recommended greater awareness raising of prescription pre-payment certificates and local NHS Minor Ailment Schemes that make some over-the-counter medicines available free of charge.

Its survey found that 5% of patients responding said they have avoided taking up one or more NHS prescriptions in the last 12 months because of the price.

PDA calls on government to 'do the right thing'

Alison Jones, director of policy at The Pharmacists' Defence Association (PDA), warned that when medicines to manage chronic conditions are not taken as prescribed, 'this can lead to additional requirements to visit the GP and avoidable hospital admissions due to the worsening of symptoms'.

'The choice of not taking a much-needed medicine is not an easy one for many patients,' she added.

'The Westminster Government had multiple chances to do the right thing on prescription charges. Ideally, we want them to abolish prescription charges like the other UK nations. However, if they won’t do that, they could at least review the exception list to reflect the diagnosis and treatment available today,' Ms Jones said.

'Failing both the above, the government could have chosen to not make the situation worse for many patients, as they could have frozen the charge. Instead, the government has decided to keep the exception list unchanged and to increase the charge meaning that pharmacists are even more likely to see patients self-ration the medicine they need due to cost and must continue to have to collect this "tax" for the government.'

Additional workload for pharmacy teams

In addition to the impact on patients, Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists' Association (CCA), noted the additional workload that collecting the prescription charge creates for pharmacy teams, 'for which they receive no benefit'.

'Ultimately, pharmacists should not have to police the collection of taxes for the government’.

'Tax on the vulnerable'

And Janet Morrison, chief executive of Community Pharmacy England (CPE), commented: 'Yet again community pharmacies must be the bearers of bad news as the government decides to raise the NHS prescription charge.'

She said the pharmacy negotiator remains opposed to the charge, adding: 'It is a tax on the vulnerable and one which forces pharmacy teams to act as tax collectors on top of the intolerable wider pressures that community pharmacy is facing.’

And Nick Kaye, chair of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), described the charge as a tax on the working poor that deepens the cost of living crisis for them'.

'It’s scandalous that the government imposes a £650 million a year tax on people who simply have the bad fortune to be ill or have a certain long term medical condition,' he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson told The Pharmacist: 'Almost nine in ten prescription items are available for free on the NHS in England and children, and those aged 60 and over, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions like cancer, epilepsy and diabetes remain exempt.

'This wide range of support, as well as the NHS Low Income scheme, ensures that everyone who needs a prescription can afford it. Where charges are in place, it is important prices are regularly updated to ensure the NHS maintains a sustainable business model and can continue to deliver excellent patient care.'