Thursday, 3 March 2011

Free at the point of care? Only for some!

Cross-posted from The Broken Of Britain.

Not everyone with a disability is also ill and in need of regular prescriptions, but many of us are. As an example, here are the medications I need every day for my multiple sclerosis:
  • 3 painkillers
  • 1 bladder medication
  • 1 med for fatigue
  • 1 anti-spasmodic
  • 1 sleeping pill
  • ...and a partridge in a pear tree (or so it sometimes seems!)
Then  there are the medications I take for the rest of my encyclopaedia of medical conditions: altogether 15 different meds, between one and eight tablets per day for each. If I could jump up and down I would rattle, so all in all, it's quite a good thing I can't!

The current prescription charge in England is £7.20 per item. In Wales and Northern Ireland they are free. In Scotland, they currently cost £3.00, but will become free later this year. I live in England, so I will consider only the situation here, and leave aside in this post the "postcode lottery" element of the differing charges between countries.

As well as MS, I have epilepsy. That means I get all my prescriptions free. The rationale behind this is that epilepsy is lifelong and potentially life-threatening. But the exemption applies not only to my epilepsy medications, but to everything. I've had prescriptions for a bottle of calamine lotion (over the counter cost what, about 50p?) to save me the prescription charge.

These medical exemptions are available to people with a few conditions other than epilepsy, including cancer, diabetes treated with medication, and any physical disability that means the individual cannot go out without help from another person.

There are many, many long-term conditions that are not covered by the exemption - for instance asthma, heart disease and Crohn's disease, all of which can be terribly disabling. There is evidence that high prescription costs lead to many people going without the medications they need:
  • In 2007, 800,000 people failed to collect a prescription because of the cost involved. People with long-term conditions are particularly affected.
  • 34% of people who have to pay for their asthma medication sometimes choose not to get it because of the cost.
  • 38% of people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia have to choose between paying household bills and paying for prescriptions.
A GP is quoted as saying:
It's not unusual for patients to ask me which prescription is really important, which one can they get now and which one they have to wait maybe two weeks before they get their pay cheque.
I believe that prescriptions should be free for anyone with a long-term condition. Already over 89% of prescriptions are free, with no charges for children, pensioners, pregnant women, and people whose income falls below a certain level. It seems inequitable that (say) a wealthy pensioner or pregnant woman is entitled to free prescriptions, while someone with disabling heart disease whose income falls just above the cut-off point is not.

The Prescription Charges Coalition brings together 24 charities, and calls for the Government to abolish prescription charges for everyone with a long-term condition. They have a petition, and a template letter for you to send to your GP. If you agree with me that prescriptions should be free for everyone with a long-term conditions, please click on the link!

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