THE first signs people are abusing the free prescriptions system can be revealed today.
The Western Mail has learned that patients have visited their doctors to claim free tubes of Bonjela and pots of Vaseline on the NHS. These items cost just a couple of pounds from pharmacies and supermarkets but were issued on a free prescription within the first month of the scheme’s introduction.
A snapshot of prescribing behaviour in April and May also reveals that patients claimed other popular over-the-counter medicines such as hay fever sprays, indigestion and diarrhoea tablets and athlete’s foot creams.
The findings come just a day after the Western Mail revealed that the number of prescription items claimed by patients rocketed by 3m last year, coinciding with prescription fees falling to £3 in Wales.
Experts and politicians have said they will now closely monitor the supply of over-the-counter medicines on prescription.
Jonathan Morgan AM, the Welsh Conservative’s Shadow Health Spokesman said, “This is the sort of abuse we warned against. There is no reason why doctors should be prescribing something like Bonjela or Vaseline when it is readily available over the counter.
“Prescriptions should be used for the drugs patients need to combat viruses or nasty illnesses. Bonjela for ulcers or Vaseline for sores can be bought at any small pharmacy or large supermarket.
“People reading the Western Mail will be astonished to hear that GPs are prescribing these things that should be bought over the counter.”
Prescription fees were scrapped in Wales in April as the former Labour Welsh Assembly Government fulfilled one of its 2003 election pledges. In England prescription fees rose to £6.85 per item in April.
The scheme was heralded as an end to the tax on illness – some patients faced a monthly dilemma about whether they could afford to pay for the very medications designed to make them better.
First Minister Rhodri Morgan said the scheme would also help encourage people off benefits and into work as prescriptions would be free for all.
In reality, only one in five people in Wales were eligible for prescription charges.
Jenny Randerson, the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ health spokeswoman said, “Free prescriptions for all sounds great on election leaflets, but, in reality, the drugs budget is finite.
“Now the election is over the consequences of this policy are becoming painfully clear.
“Last year I warned that free prescriptions would mean more Beechams powder for millionaires and less people getting the help they need.
“Labour brought this in with claims it would help a healthier Wales move towards full employment – in reality it will lead to more demands on GPs’ time, longer waiting lists and less money for expensive new cancer drugs.”
GPs have always been able to prescribe over-the-counter medicines, but doctors feared the introduction of free prescriptions in April would lead to a clamour for appointments from patients seeking to save money on such treatments.
Last month, Dr Ashok Rayani, a GP in Swansea, said, “We have seen many more patients coming to the surgery asking for hay fever 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.”
The Western Mail’s analysis of prescribing behaviour in April and May supplied to Health Solution Wales found that patients have been prescribed such common medicines as Gaviscon Advance, Canesten Once, Beconase and Nurofen for children – all of which are widely available on the high street.
Jonathan Morgan added, “Free prescriptions were designed to help those people who were struggling to pay for prescriptions.
“We will be monitoring the implementation of free prescriptions over the next couple of years – it may be the case that the government will need to produce a list of those things that should not be on the list of items that qualify for free prescriptions.”
But a spokesman for Community Pharmacy Wales said, “We have asked our contractors to monitor the situation.
“Unless you know why a person has been prescribed something it is very difficult to say whether they would have bought that item over the counter before or whether they were already entitled to free prescriptions.
“We always follow the policy of trying to encourage people to self-medicate in the first instance, which is in line with government policy.
“But there are people who will always refer themselves to their prescriber.”
The Welsh Assembly Government last night said, “GPs are responsible for ensuring that medication is prescribed based on the patient’s clinical needs, to avoid the risk of people trying to abuse free prescriptions.
“We have stressed that patients needing over-the-counter drugs, which are medications that do not require a prescription, should continue to be buy them in the normal way.”
Among the most popular medicines Welsh doctors prescribed to patients following the introduction of free prescriptions were these 12 remedies... - page 2