Ministers are consulting on whether to raise the minimum age for free prescriptions in England, to help the NHS make back the money it lost from the pandemic.
As it stands, people over the age of 60 can avoid prescription charges. The blanket exemption also applies to people under 16 and people aged 16 to 18 in full-time education.
Last week (1 July), the Government launched a public consultation on whether the age eligibility for free prescriptions should be raised from 60 to 66 to be in line with the state pension age.
'The changes will mean that people who need NHS prescriptions and reach the age of 60 on or after the implementation date of the changes to the Charges Regulations will need to pay for their prescriptions for longer, either by paying a single prescription charge or by the purchase of a prescription prepayment certificate (PPC), unless they are exempt under another category, for example, an income-related or medical exemption,' the consultation said.
Health minister, James Bethell, said upping the minimum age would help provide the NHS with funding ‘it needs to recover from this pandemic’.
‘The upper age exemption for free prescriptions used to align with the state pension age, but that link has been lost over the years,’ said Mr Bethell.
‘Prescription charges are an important source of income for the NHS, and the costs of providing free prescriptions continue to increase with our aging population.’
However, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in England, Thorrun Govind, said the move was ‘unacceptable’ in light of the economic strain put on the population during the pandemic.
‘Such proposals will only further drive the health inequalities that have been highlighted by Covid-19,’ she said.
‘We are deeply concerned that even more people will have to make choices about their health based on their ability to pay. Every day pharmacists are asked by patients who are unable to afford all the items of their prescription which ones they could 'do without'. Patients shouldn't have to make choices which involve rationing their medicines. No one should be faced with a financial barrier to getting the medicines they need.’
She added that reducing access to medicines would in turn lead to worsening health and expensive hospital admissions.
In 2017, the Prescription Charges Coalition campaign group called for prescriptions in England to be free to everyone with a long-term medical condition after a report revealed that a third of people living with long-term conditions who pay prescription charges had not collected their prescriptions due to cost concerns.
Ms Govind added: ‘People of working age with long-term conditions are disproportionately affected by prescription charges. Prescriptions are free for everybody in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
‘The list of long-term conditions which are exempt from charges have barely changed since 1968 and fails to include many long-term conditions that are prevalent today,’ she said.
She called for a ‘review and overhaul’ of the ‘system in England to ensure it supports people facing long-term and increasing medication costs.’
The consultation will remain open for 8 weeks.
Various health bodies called for prescription charges to be temporarily removed to reduce ‘unnecessary contact’ between patients and pharmacy staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, in April of this year, prescription charges will rose by 20p to £9.35 per item in England.