Prescription charges back in spotlight

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Audlem Online's campaign last year for free prescription charges in England seems to be catching on. After the village appeared on six TV programmes and in numerous national newspapers and on radio stations last year, doctors' leaders have now called on the government to abolish prescription charges for all patients in England.

The British Medical Association (BMA) says the current system is not working and is "iniquitous" for many patients. Prescriptions are free for everyone in Wales, will be free in Northern Ireland by 2010 and in Scotland by 2011. But the BMA says the stance in England is outdated — and detrimental to the health of many, since charging can put people off taking medication they need.

The current national situation for prescription charges is:
England: £7.10
Scotland: Phased out by 2011
Wales: No charge since 2007
Northern Ireland: £3 from January 2009, phased out by April 2010
Some age groups, pregnant women, people on benefits and patients with certain conditions remain exempt from the £7.10 charge.

Public health minister Dawn Primarolo said: "In England, 89% of prescription items are dispensed for free, the remainder provide valuable income to the NHS, which goes towards to the safety and speed of healthcare. But we are making the system fairer. Cancer patients will be eligible for free prescriptions from 1 April and we're looking at how we can do the same for people with long-term conditions."

But the BMA is worried about creating a "new set of arbitrary winners and losers." Chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said: "Free prescriptions for people with long-term conditions is a laudable aim, but it does not go far enough. Making the list of exemptions longer will not make it fairer. Ultimately, we could end up with a situation where only a tiny proportion of prescriptions attract a charge, which would be nonsensical. Abolishing prescription charges altogether is the fairest and the simplest option."

The BMA said the current system was unfair, with people with asthma and heart disease, for example, not being exempt despite needing long-term treatment.


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