Prescription charges 'outdated'

NHS prescription charges are "outdated" and should be scrapped, according to an article in a leading medical journal.

Examples of prescriptions.
Examples of prescriptions.

An editorial in the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin says the charge is an "unfair tax".

England remains the only country in the UK where patients still have to pay for prescriptions, which are free in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In April the price was increased to £8.05 per prescription.

The editorial says the cost is disproportionate to a number of commonly prescribed items. For instance, a pack of 28 75mg aspirin costs 74p while the statin drug atorvastatin (20mg) costs £1.26.

A number of people are exempt from paying the fee, including the elderly, children, pregnant women and some people with chronic conditions, but the editorial says some of the exemptions "appear illogical".

The prescription charge has long been a contentious issue, the authors wrote.

Many alternatives have been suggested, including getting a patient to pay for the cost of the drug plus a dispensing charge to the pharmacist.

Although fees for private prescription can vary, they can sometimes end up being cheaper than an NHS prescription, they said.

"Why should patients in England be subject to this additional 'tax' on medicines, having already contributed to the NHS through general taxation?" they wrote.

"There are many exemptions from the prescription charge, including age, pregnancy and some specific chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism and epilepsy. All NHS prescriptions are free for these groups, even those not related to their exempting condition.

"Many such exemptions appear illogical and unfair, adding to our belief that the prescription charge is a poorly conceived, manifestly unfair tax."

The authors added: "Over recent years there have been many calls from various quarters, including patient organisations, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the British Medical Association, for a fundamental review of prescription charges.

"Such charges are clearly outdated and iniquitous, and we believe it is time that politicians showed their commitment to a patient-centred NHS and abolish prescription charges in England."