There has been a 35% increase in the number of people applying for help with healthcare expenses in just one year, according to an investigation by HSJ .

Using Freedom of Information requests, HSJ obtained data from the NHS Business Service Authority on the number of applicants to the NHS low income scheme. From 2021 to 2022 applicant numbers rose 35%, from 267,248 to 361,000 and the 2021 figure is a 52% leap from the 2020 figure of 236,993.

The NHS low income scheme helps with expenses such as prescription charges, dental fees, and the cost of travelling to NHS treatments.

Patients can apply if they do not qualify for other help with healthcare costs. Many on a low income already qualify for help as they receive benefits, such as income-based jobseeker’s allowance or Universal Credit. Help via the NHS low income scheme is assessed based on income and savings and is only available if income either does not cover or only just covers living requirements and you have less than £16,000 in savings.

In February this year 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. 

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society England board chair Thorrun Govind told HSJ: “We heard first hand from pharmacists that participated in our prescription charges survey that there was a rise in patients asking pharmacists what medications they can do without or whether they can substitute over-the-counter options they have been prescribed, for cheaper medication.”

The move to impose prescription charges on 2.4 million people aged 60-66, was finally dropped by the government in March, but in April those who do have to pay prescription charges, were treated to a rise of 30 pence in April 2023 to £9.65, plus an 8.5% increase in the cost of NHS dental treatments.

Money raised via prescription charges 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. Since its introduction by the Conservatives in 1952, prescription charges have never been a serious source of funding. The whole of the population of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have enjoyed free prescriptions for years. 

The HSJ does note that the introduction of a trial of an on-line application process for the low income scheme, may have increased applicant numbers.


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