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Changing free prescriptions age could affect how GPs prescribe

Ministers are considering holding a consultation on raising the prescription price upper age exemption in England from 60 to 66, in line with the state pension age. In England, prescriptions cost £9.35, while in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, they are free. GPs already at breaking point fear that patients who cannot pay for their medicines will visit their doctor when their health problems are substantially worse.

The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) said that raising the age at which older people may get free prescriptions could make it more difficult for patients who are less well-off to maintain their health, and urged the government to reconsider its plans.

“Any increase to the current free prescription age of 60 would disproportionately affect a large group of patients who are on low incomes but just above the threshold for financial help with the costs of their medication,” said Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the RCGP.

“Many patients are already waiting longer for treatment or will have seen their health deteriorate as a result of the challenges over the last two years. This change could discourage patients who are financially less well-off from managing their health proactively, and could mean that they present to general practice when their problems are far worse, at a time when general practice is already at breaking point.”

Dr Helen Salisbury, a GP in Oxford and member of Independent Sage, said it was “a really silly idea to save any money”.

“Money spent on medicines to keep people well is incredibly well spent. It’s a really good investment in people. And it’s very clear that lots of people who wouldn’t qualify for free prescriptions would struggle to pay for them and would end up not taking the medicines they need.”

“It’s such a false economy to try and save money by getting people to pay for them because some of them just won’t take them at that point, and then they’ll be sicker and they’ll leave the workforce or they’ll just spend more time in hospital.

“I think patients would be very, very upset. But actually, there’s been so much else clamouring for people’s attention in the news, I think most patients don’t realise that this is on the table.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has yet to make a decision on the plans, but any modifications are expected to take effect in April. The government is considering a number of possibilities, including continuing to provide free medications to existing 60 to 65-year-olds.

Allowing fewer elderly individuals to receive free prescriptions will raise more money for frontline NHS services in England, where £600 million was raised in 2019. People on low incomes or with specified ailments would continue to be excluded from paying, and patients who require regular medicine might save money by joining up for the prepayment programme. However, charities, pharmacies, and GPs are all opposed to the measures.

The DHSC said: “Around 90 per cent of community prescription items in England are free of charge, and people don’t pay if they are on a low income, over 60, or have certain medical conditions.

“The upper age exemption has not changed since 1995 and that is why we have consulted on restoring the link between this and the state pension age. We are considering the responses carefully and will respond in due course.”

 


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