We are now just over two years away from the next general election and political parties are starting to develop their manifestos.
In this age of austerity, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s team has already identified “alarm clock Britain” as a key demographic in need of help – these are the basic rate taxpayers who get up early, take their children to school and then go to work only to find their living standards squeezed by current economic circumstances. If Liberal Democrats are indeed committed to helping this section of the population, they need look no further than delivering reform on prescription charges for people with long-term conditions.
The phrase ‘long-term condition’ is used to cover a variety of chronic health conditions that usually persist for a period of at least six months and require continuing management which often (but not always) includes management with medication. Many long-term conditions strike indiscriminately, affecting people of working age who would describe themselves as being intrinsically part of the ‘alarm clock Britain’ demographic.
According to the Government’s own figures, over 15% of people aged 20-29 have one or more long-term conditions, rising to 40% in those aged 50-59. This is a significant proportion of the working population who not only have to contend with the daily grind and declining living standards, but also have to deal with a serious health problem on top – and the additional financial penalties that come with this.
The Coalition Government recently announced that from 1st April 2013, it will cost £7.85 per NHS medicine prescription. This may not sound like much, but it soon adds up if you do not qualify for an age-related, medical or income-related exemption. To be clear, these are people who already pay National Insurance contributions and now suddenly and unexpectedly need help from the NHS only to find that popular NHS mantras of ‘free at the point of delivery’, ‘available to all’ and ‘based on clinical need rather than ability to pay’ do not apply to them.
Prescription charges today are 8 times higher, in real terms, than they were 30 years ago. The latest rise is up from £7.65 last year and is in keeping with a tradition that has seen charges rise every year since 1979. We are not just talking about medicines to keep people well, but to prevent an exacerbation of symptoms that could prove fatal, such as a serious asthma attack.
Why are we bothering to flag this to readers of Liberal Democrat Voice? Because the party has a strong track record on trying to tackle these sorts of health inequalities: from the 2010 manifesto commitment to reform payments to GPs to encourage them to accept patients from areas with the worst health and deprivation scores, right through to the recent announcement by Health Minister Norman Lamb over the intention to cap care costs at £75,000.
The Prescription Charges Coalition – a group of over 20 leading charities and organisations is therefore calling on the Liberal Democrats to address this fundamental inequality by committing to delivering free prescriptions for people with long-term conditions, and dumping the unfair list of selective exemptions that was drawn up in 1968, and remains Department of Health policy to this day.
Our new report Paying the Price makes a powerful case for reform. We surveyed almost 4,000 people with long-term conditions that are not exempt from prescription charges, and found of those who paid for their prescriptions but did not have a Prescription Prepayment Certificate (a pre-pay card which provides free prescriptions for an up-front charge of around £100 a year) 35% had been issued a prescription medicine for their condition but not collected it from the pharmacy because of the cost.
Among these respondents, 72% reported their health deteriorated after failing to take medicine as prescribed, with 40% needing to go back to their doctor. Worse still, 10% said that they ended up in hospital as a result of not taking their medication.
Those who are not hospitalised also pay a heavy price for their essential medication. Our research tells a moving story of the impacts that prescription charges have on society and people’s health. Respondents told us they borrow pills from family members, do not go to work in order to save petrol and face the heartbreaking choice between their medicine and paying for food, new clothes and bills.
The Office for National Statistics recently reported that “In 2011, 36.6% of people felt that they would be unable to meet an unexpected but necessary financial expense”. This means that almost a third of the British public could find themselves similarly torn between food and medicine, if they were faced with the “unexpected but necessary” expense of a long-term condition diagnosis.
The Prescription Charges Coalition came close to achieving its aim when the last Labour Government recognised the inequality of this system, and commissioned Professor Ian Gilmore to investigate into how the system could be improved. Unfortunately his recommendations were not taken forward by the Coalition Government.
With manifesto planning now starting, we hope the Lib Dem leadership will listen to our calls and deliver reform that would be truly priceless for those with long-term conditions.
Paying The Price is available to download here.
‘The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.
* Jamie Hewitt is Government Affairs Manager of the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society and writes on behalf of the Prescription Charges Coalition