THREE million people have registered with GPs in Wales – 100,000 more than the country’s official population.
Conservatives claim the figures point to patients from England coming to Wales to take advantage of the free prescriptions on offer in the principality.
The population of Wales at the last official count, in 2006, was 2.9 million, but three million people have registered with GPs.
Conservative AM Darren Millar, who represents Clwyd West, said: “It has long been my suspicion that prescription-tourism is rife in my constituency.”
He added: “These shocking figures, when read alongside the fact there is a 5% increase in the number of NHS prescriptions issued in Wales over the last 12 months, shows that there is a serious problem. The Assembly Government must tackle prescription tourism sooner rather than later.
“If free prescriptions are being abused by those living in England, then it will be Welsh patients who lose out.”
However, First Minister Rhodri Morgan condemned Mr Millar’s comments, saying: “That’s an absolutely farcical point.”
He said the disparity between the resident population and the number of people registered with GPs had been a long-running issue.
Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom to have no prescription charges.
England has the highest prescription charge at £7.10, followed by Northern Ireland (£6.85) and Scotland (£5). Scotland aims to have scrapped charges by 2011.
David Bailey, chairman of the BMA’s GP committee for Wales, dismissed the Conservative suggestion as “spin”.
He said many of the people may have come to Wales to find work, saying: “They need to get healthcare but they don’t want to tell the Government they exist.”
He added: “I genuinely don’t think it’s down to health tourism. I think that’s the political spin somebody wants to put on it because it’s advantageous to them to do it.”
Dr Bailey said that there were disadvantages to being registered with a Welsh GP, such as possibly having to wait longer for an operation following a referral.
Backing free prescriptions, he said: “I’m entirely in favour because I think it’s a tax on the sick.”
However, Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Jenny Randerson said: “There are many problems with free prescriptions, not least the cost that no-one knows about.”
She called on the First Minister to authorise a study into the effects of free prescriptions, saying: “I think the reason he won’t do this is because he knows it has cost millions more than planned, and he knows that people who can’t get treatment for critical care will be angry about this.”
Plaid Cymru health spokesperson Helen Mary Jones said: “One of the reasons that I supported the introduction of free prescriptions was evidence that people on low incomes were often not filling their prescriptions or were choosing one item over the other. I’ve had anecdotal evidence from my constituency, from GPs and pharmacists, suggesting that the introduction of free prescriptions has greatly improved the position.
“This evidence shows that it has led to, for example, fewer patients with asthma being admitted to hospital in emergency situations. I have therefore suggested to the First Minister that he commission research on this in order to gather more substantial evidence.”
Conservative Shadow Health Minister Jonathan Morgan said: “In some areas of Wales, the difference in the number of people registered with a GP compared to the number living there is tens of thousands. Obviously some allowance must be made for the number of students staying in Wales, but the Assembly Government would be incredibly naive to believe that is why the figure is so high.
“We need to know now what Labour and Plaid plan to do to stamp out prescription-tourists travelling to Wales.”