THE free prescriptions backlash has begun as calls mount for them to be scrapped and a “nominal” fee per item introduced.
Free prescriptions were introduced in Wales three months ago and anecdotal evidence suggests patients are already bombarding their GP surgeries with demands for cheap over-the-counter medicines free on prescription.
Demands include prescriptions for paracetamol, which can cost as little as 1p a pill.
There is increasing concern that patients with genuine medical problems are struggling to get appointments with their doctors in an already under-pressure system as people seek to save a few pounds on medicines.
Dr Ashok Rayani, a GP in Swansea, said, “We have seen many more patients coming to the surgery asking for hayfever treatments, paracetamol and ibuprofen.
“When we recommend that they go to their pharmacist, they say why can’t they have a prescription.
“It’s not just the GPs who are under pressure – the nurses are under pressure and other patients, with more health needs or with chronic illnesses, are not able to get appointments to see their doctor for more serious problems.”
All charges for prescriptions were removed in Wales in April, following an election pledge by the last Labour government. It was introduced following a price-freeze and a series of price cuts over the last few years.
The call for a nominal fee for prescription medicines has been reinforced by Nick Philips, director of Bowel Cancer Wales. He has highlighted the inequity of ground-breaking and expensive anti-cancer drugs being denied to patients on the NHS on the grounds of costs, while everyone gets free prescriptions regardless of their means.
First Minister Rhodri Morgan said the initiative would help the sick back to work, because prescriptions are free regardless of whether someone is on benefits or a working wage.
Mr Phillips, who set up Bowel Cancer Wales following the death of his wife Marcia from the disease last year, said, “Free prescriptions was a politically motivated initiative. If someone is genuinely ill with a long-term illness, like asthma – as my wife was – or if someone is disabled, they should have free prescriptions.
“But why should a multi-millionaire have the right to free prescriptions?
“I would push for some form of means-testing which measures a person’s ability to pay. I wouldn’t want to see prescriptions costing £6-plus as they do in England, but £3 would be about right.”
Dr Rayani added, “There has to be a mechanism to help patients on low incomes meet the cost of medicines.
“But patients often hoard drugs at home – a nominal charge of 50p an item would prevent the hoarding of unwanted or unused drugs which costs the NHS so much money.”
Jenny Randerson, the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ health spokeswoman, said, “The 20% of people who were paying for prescription should, in my view, continue paying for them.
“At the same time we should also be sorting out a much longer list of chronic conditions, which would be eligible for free prescriptions.
“We have a financially over-stretched health service and this [free prescriptions] is an expensive option.”
A spokesman for the Welsh Assembly Government said, “It is the responsibility of GPs to ensure that medication is prescribed based on the patient’s clinical needs.
“We have stressed that patients needing over-the-counter drugs, which are medications that do not require a prescription, should continue to buy them in the normal way. At this stage we do not have the official figures on the number of prescriptions dispensed since April 1, so we are unable to substantiate these claims.”
Official figures revealing how many prescriptions were written in the last three months are expected to be published in September.
It comes as the Department of Health in England has said it will review prescription charges, which currently stand at £6.85 per item.
How much does it cost to buy common medicines over the counter?
Paracetamol (16 tablets) – from 16p
Ibuprofen – from 35p
Calpol Infant Suspension (12 x 5ml sachets) – £2.23
Benadryl Allergy Relief (24 tablets) – £7.99
Benylin Children’s Chesty Coughs – £2.59