Age UK has spoken out about the importance of keeping free prescriptions for the over-60s in place. Changing the qualifying age from 60 to 66 would mean 2.4 million more people would be paying the £9.35 charge for their medications.
While the move proposed by the Department of Health is designed to save the NHS money, it could have the opposite effect. The charity, which works on behalf of older people, is concerned those who can’t afford the drugs will forgo them and need medical intervention when they become ill with preventable conditions.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director, for Age UK, said: “This proposed policy is a kick in the teeth, both for poorly older people and the NHS. It is also extremely ill-judged because the money the government will save will almost certainly be outweighed by the additional costs to the NHS, if people fail to take their medication because they can’t afford it and become ill.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health defended the proposed move, highlighting the fact the threshold for free prescriptions in England has not been updated for decades. The last changes were in 1974 for women and 1995 for men. Meanwhile, in Scotland and Wales, prescription fees have been dropped altogether.
At present, the change is at the consultation phase and Age UK is running a campaign to save free prescriptions for 60 to 65-year-olds. The charity is encouraging people to speak up and show there is significant opposition to raising the qualifying age to be in line with that of the state pension.
It is trying to raise awareness of the consultation via a number of means, including using the #BitterPillToSwallow hashtag on social media. Age UK is concerned that having been consulted on in August and without much coverage, the move could be brought in before much of the general public are aware of it.
Those on certain benefits and a number of medical exemptions will apply, but the move would still be far reaching. The over-60s who will be most negatively affected are people with a modest income just above the threshold for benefits and anyone managing multiple long term health conditions, requiring several medications.
The government’s impact assessment on the issue has not examined whether ethnic minorities will be disproportionately affected by the change in age threshold. This is despite heart disease and hypertension being particularly prevalent in ageing black African and black Caribbean groups.
In response to Age UK’s concerns about a levy on poor health, the government has suggested over-60s requiring multiple long term medications purchase a Prescription Pre-payment certificate (PPC). While it has the potential to cut the price of medications in the long run, the £108.10 PPC must be paid upfront or via a direct debit.
These details will put it out of reach for many of those who need it most, which coupled with the fact that awareness of the PPC is low, limits its effectiveness. The result could be 240,000 people paying more than they should for symptom relieving and life-saving medications.