Health bodies including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) have suggested the Government pause prescription charges, as part of a call for targeted support for those most impacted by the cost-of-living crisis.

A letter signed by Sarah Sweeney, interim chief executive of the healthcare charity coalition National Voices, and supported by 63 members including the RPS, called for targeted support to tackle the disproportionate impact of the cost-of living crisis on people with ill health or disabilities.

For instance, it suggested the full reimbursement of utility costs for those using medical devices, after finding that the devices that many people rely on were becoming ‘increasingly unaffordable’, as well as pausing all prescription charges, after reports that some patients are struggling to afford prescription costs.

Thorrun Govind, RPS England country board chair, said: 'England is the only country in the UK that makes patients pay for their prescriptions. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, the Government should act now to address this inequality and scrap prescription charges altogether. This would be fairer for patients and allow pharmacists to focus on clinical care, rather than avoidable red tape.'

The letter also said that 22% of people were seeing their support network less, predominantly due to the cost of transport, and that people on low incomes, especially those with specific dietary needs, were struggling to eat a healthy and balanced diet because of rising food costs.

It also referenced research from health charities which found that the cost-of-living crisis was affecting access to treatments.

For example, 23% of people with MS said that they were worried about affording medications, while 62% of people with arthritis or musculoskeletal conditions whose surgery was delayed or cancelled due to Covid-19 said they are living in pain because they can’t afford the treatments they need.

Research commissioned by Versus Arthritis found that many people with arthritis or musculoskeletal conditions paid for over-the-counter medication, physiotherapy, private healthcare and prescription costs while waiting for surgery – totalling an average of £1739 within a year.

Of these, 21% of patients said they often go without basic needs including food or heating to pay for treatments needed to manage their pain.

The National Voices letter also called on the Government to:

  • Introduce longer term capped energy tariffs for those with medical treatment needs
  • Invest the voluntary sector to organise affordable activities to reduce isolation
  • Invest in urgent targeted support for those at the sharpest end of the cost-of-living crisis, for instance through increasing benefits to match inflation and ensuring support for housing costs increases in line with rents
  • Fully fund health and social care services in the Autumn statement and future fiscal planning, ‘so that they can meet all our health and care needs’

Ms Govind said that 'the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 highlighted the stark reality of health inequalities in our country.

'We have already seen a "lost decade" in life expectancy improvement and there is rising concern this looks set to be repeated.

'Health and care leaders are united in warning the Government against underinvesting in the nation’s health and potentially harming some of the most vulnerable in our society.'

On Friday, Sir Michael Marmot told pharmacists at the RPS conference that growing health inequalities, such as a stalling in life expectancy that was out of line with other countries, to three main factors: the decade of austerity since 2010, the Covid-19 pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis.

Referencing the impact of cuts to government spending between 2010 and 2020, he said: ‘We lost a decade. These terrible problems that we’re suffering are a political choice.’

Last week, pharmacist Ade Williams wrote in The Pharmacist that his pharmacy team was considering paying for struggling patients’ prescriptions.