Holly Worboys, a 19 year waitress died from an asthma attack because she was too poor to pay for prescription inhalers.  Asthma UK told her story this week as part of in-depth report that revealed that 50% of asthma sufferers are avoiding picking up their medicine due to the prescription charges.


The survey of 9,000 patients discovered that 82% of these patients experienced a worsening of their condition. A further 13% then required hospital treatment as a result of an asthma attack.


Holly’s mum Cathy, explained in the report how a lack of money affected her daughter’s decisions about how to treat her Asthma.


“As Holly only had one dose of medicine left in her inhaler, even as she struggled to breathe she didn’t want to take it, saying she’d save it for when she really needed it,” Cathy helped Holly pay for medication when she could. “The horrific irony is, that was the moment Holly really did need it.”


Asthma UK point out that to stay well, people with asthma often need to take their preventer inhaler every day for their entire lifetime. They also need their reliever inhaler to help them if their asthma symptoms flare up or if they are having an asthma attack.


92% of patients surveyed who earn under £20,000 pa reported finding it difficult to pay their prescription costs, with many cutting down their food bills to find the money for their medicine.


Worryingly, nearly three-quarters of those who reported skipping their medication due to costs said they avoided using their preventer inhaler, risking a worsening of their symptoms.


The charity says, “Every 10 seconds someone is having a potentially life-threatening asthma attack in the UK. Every day, the lives of three families are devastated by the death of a loved one to an asthma attack, and tragically two thirds of these deaths are preventable.”


Asthma costs the NHS £297 million in hospital admissions and GP appointments and Asthma UK is calling for sufferers to be exempt from prescription charges, suggesting that this would reduce the need for hospital and GP care.


Many more affected


However evidence from other charities and health bodies shows that this is a problem that affects millions of other NHS patients with a wide variety of long term medical conditions, such as Parkinsons, Crohns  diabetes, sickle cell and Lupus.


An umbrella organisation, the Prescription Charges Coalition, supported by 46 organisations produced a report in June 2017, Still Paying the Price, providing evidence about how a third of patients living with a long term condition have not collected a prescription on the grounds of costs, compromise their healthcare.


In Scotland, where prescription charges were abolished in 2011, a subsequent report in 2013 found that the number of items dispensed for long term conditions such as asthma, Crohns disease and diabetes, had increased by more than 10,000 for those with Crohn’s disease and nearly 237,000 items for those with asthma. The Scottish government welcomed this increase as evidence that a barrier to medication had been removed and patients were now receiving the correct medication.

A similar trend has been reported in Wales where prescription charges have also been removed.


Prescription charges Q&A: How do they work and are they necessary?


The list of those who are exempt from prescription charges in England due to various long-term conditions and age has not
changed since 1968, apart from addition of  Cancer in 2009. Population health has altered a great deal since then with a rise in the number of people living with long-term conditions, which has led to accusations that these historic rules are outdated and unfair.


The Royal Pharmaceutical Society supports a change in England

“We would like for charges to be abolished as it is in Wales and Scotland, however the priority is addressing charges for those with long term conditions who are often prescribed multiple medications for a long period of time. The cost of this to the patient, who’s income may also be suffering from their condition, is unjustifiable and can put people in a position of medicine poverty.”


Falling standards


A report by Nuffield Trust and Association for Young People’s Health  found that the UK has more than double the amount of deaths due to Asthma than any other European country and lags way behind other countries in health outcomes for 10 to 24 year-olds.


Young people in the UK are more likely to develop a long-term health condition and be killed by it than any other European or Western nation.


The report describes the material deprivation felt by young people in the UK as a major factor in these findings. Young people are being let down by underfunded health services and increasing social and economic inequalities.


Tragic dilemma


Commenting on the stress being endured by Asthma patients a spokesperson for Asthma UK said,


“More than a million people in England are having to ‘pay to breathe’ and are at risk of having a life-threatening asthma attack because they are struggling to pay for their asthma prescriptions,”


Holly’s sister Rosie summed up the tragic dillemma,  


“Holly’s wages had only really been enough to get by and paying for her prescription was an extra cost. She thought she could get around it by being sparing with her medication – but the gamble cost her her life.”


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