The government has been urged to ‘get a grip’ on the cost of prescriptions in England amid concerns around patients struggling to access the medicines they need and a low awareness of prescription pre-payment certificates.

Speaking at the Health and Social Care Committee (HSCC’s) pharmacy inquiry this week, William Pett, the head of policy, public affairs and research at Healthwatch England, said that the cost of living was preventing many patients to take up pharmacy services, including prescriptions.

‘Unless action is taken on that, we're going to continue to see people avoiding pharmacy for that reason,’ he said.

While around 90% of medications are dispensed for free, Mr Pett said many low income individuals who were not on state benefits or exempt from prescription charges were ‘having real problems affording medication’.

And he cited Healthwatch England research published last year which found that one in 10 people had avoided taking up one or more prescriptions because of cost. One in 10 had also avoided buying over the counter medication due to costs.

Mr Pett told the inquiry that patients failing to take up medication in this way was ‘storing up problems further down the line for the rest of the health care system’.

‘The government needs to get a grip on this, not least from a prevention perspective,’ he said.

In particular, Mr Pett told the inquiry said there was ‘really low awareness’ of prescription pre-payment certificates, which enable a patient to access a year’s worth of prescriptions for an upfront payment of £111.60, or pay £31.25 for three months of prescriptions.

‘The government needs to do more to raise awareness of mechanisms that help people to afford medication,’ he said.

‘An estimated one million people who could benefit from those certificates are currently not and that's due largely to lack of awareness.’

Community pharmacist Deborah Evans, also giving evidence at the inquiry, assured the committee that community pharmacists ‘do promote the prepayment certificates’.

‘But at the end of the day community pharmacy is not paid to take this tax for the government, which it is – it's a prescription tax,’ she said.

‘There are so many things that community pharmacy is doing free of charge,’ Ms Evans added, citing delivery services to housebound patients as an example.

‘We've got to acknowledge and recognise that these are private contractors just as GPs are. And it's important to pay appropriately if the government wants a service to be delivered.’

Paying a significant ‘lump sum’ for the prepayment certificate was also ‘out of reach’ for many patients, said Ms Evans, who suggested alternative finance options such as monthly payments could be explored.

Meanwhile, Mr Pett also said there was a ‘certain degree of unfairness inherent’ within the categories of which patients were exempt from prescription charges.

‘We do think that there is some reason to perhaps revisit the exemption categories within them,’ he added.

A survey recently launched by the Prescription Charges Coalition asks pharmacists in England to share their experience of patients refusing prescriptions due to cost.

It will feed into the coalition’s ongoing campaign to have prescription charges scrapped for people with long-term conditions in England.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told The Pharmacist that it was working with the NHS Business Services Authority to raise awareness of low-cost options for prescriptions.

A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘About 89% of prescriptions are free on the NHS in England and the age at which free prescriptions are available has also been frozen.

‘Those with long-term conditions or on a low income can apply for a range of prescription charge exemptions or additional support through the NHS Low Income Scheme.

‘Patients can also buy pre-payment certificates to cover all the prescription items they need for just over £2 per week and we are working with the NHS Business Services Authority to raise awareness of low-cost options.’