Ministers have finally dropped their controversial plan to impose prescription charges on 2.4 million people aged 60-66, after the plan received an overwhelming thumbs down from charities and older people.

An e-petition opposing the idea attracted 45,000 signatures and there were 117,000 responses to the public consultation in 2021. Since then there has been a constipated silence, with the Department for Health and Social Care admitting only that those numbers “are testament to the strength of feeling within our community” over the planned reform.

A Commons debate on the potential extension of charges on March 6 heard junior minister Neil O’Brien say only that no decision has yet been taken. But now the Department for Health and Social Care has told the i newspaper that they are “not going ahead with this idea.”

Back in 2021 the government’s own Impact Assessment conceded that 61% of the 60-plus age group (1.5 million) were ‘high users’ of prescription drugs – a much higher proportion than younger age groups. 

That, rather than the now defunct connection with the earlier retirement age for women, has been the most powerful argument against reimposing the charges, which were abolished for this age group by John Major’s government back in 1995

Indeed the Impact Assessment estimated that imposing charges on the 2.4m people in this age group (3.5% of England’s population) would increase total prescription charge income by £226m …  more than a third. This is because various exemptions mean around 90% of prescriptions in England are dispensed free of charge: the charges on the remaining 10% raised £652 million in 2021-22

But the Impact Assessment also claimed, with no explanation, (or accounting for the potential harms of more people receiving less than their prescribed medication) that this extra funding would be “invested” in the NHS – and yield an astounding £8.4bn worth of improved health. 

However the sums raised are a tiny percentage (just 0.4%) of the £150 billion DHSC budget, while their real cost (in deterring seriously ill patients on low incomes from accessing the treatment they need) has not been calculated. 

The prescription charge, which was introduced by the Conservatives in 1952, was the first erosion of the NHS principle of giving access to necessary health care free at point of use. But it has only ever been an ideological matter rather than a serious source of funding. The whole of the population of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have enjoyed free prescriptions for years. 

In February the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, concerned at the growing numbers of people opting not to collect all of their prescribed medicines because of the cost, called on the government to review exemptions to ensure all patients with long term conditions get their drugs free of charge. 

Labour in 2019 responded to campaigners who have demanded all prescribed drugs should be free, and promised to scrap prescription charges in England if elected. However there has been no recent repetition of that commitment. Recent evidence shows that ensuring prescribed drugs are available free of charge significantly increases their compliance with treatment – and saves money.

Even after the retreat on the 60-plus age group, Tory ministers remain fully committed to the existing charges, and from April, the charge will go up from £9.35 to £9.65 for each medicine or appliance dispensed, posing fresh problems for the lowest-paid patients who are required to pay.

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