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‘Cruel change’ to free NHS prescriptions age ‘would be disaster’ – ‘new barrier’

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Campaigners say this would hit more than a million older people who would be unable to afford vital medicines if they had to pay themselves. The move could come into force as soon as April, with the £9.35 prescription fee increased at the same time.

The Government put forward the proposal last year, in a move it calculates could bring in an extra £300million for the NHS by 2026/27.

If it presses ahead with the change the age for free NHS prescriptions would be pushed back to 66, in line with the state pension age.

Qualification would then climb with state pension age, which starts to increase to 67 from 2026.

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In England, patients receive free prescriptions in England when they turn 60, which has not changed since 1974 for women and 1995 for men.

Yet they are free for everybody in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

READ MORE: How you can claim free medication as NHS prescription charges set to rise

New campaign group the Prescription Charges Coalition is leading the fight against the proposals.

Chair Laura Cockram, who is head of policy and campaigns at Parkinson’s UK, said they would inflict lasting damage on the nation’s health.

“Charging for prescriptions would be a disaster for tens of thousands of people who may face a new barrier to accessing their vital medicines,” she said.

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Increasing the exemption age by six years would hit people with multiple medications hardest, Cockram said. “Far from saving the NHS money, this proposal is likely to cost more and do lasting damage to the nation’s health.”

She added: “The proposal risks more people choosing between which medicine they can afford, or which bills they can pay.”

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She said prescriptions are free for everyone in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the principle should be extended to England, too.

Some 58 percent of over 60s have a long-term health condition and the figure is higher in deprived groups.

Among those aged between 60 and 65, who will be affected by the proposals, 3.54 million have NHS prescriptions.

Of these, roughly half do not have to pay a fee either because they have a medical exemption or are on a low income or benefits. They would continue to get free prescriptions under the new proposals.

However, many lower and middle earners would find the charge a major burden, especially as the cost of living skyrockets.

Former pensions minister Steve Webb, now a partner at consultants LCP, said many of those affected have “no idea” they could be affected by this “cruel change”.

“It is one thing to change the rules for the future so that those who are currently under 60 may have to wait longer to get free prescriptions, but quite another to take away this help from those already benefiting,” he said.

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Although the Government has yet to announce a decision there is speculation that the change could come into force from April 1, which is traditionally the date that NHS prescription charges increase.

In April last year, the charge increased by 20p, from £9.15 to £9.35, a rise of 2.1 percent broadly in line with inflation.

This year the increase could be even higher as inflation rockets. It would be a double blow if people age 60 to 65 had to start paying at the same time.

Over the past 10 years, the cost of prescriptions has risen by 26.4 percent, an increase of £1.95 per item, according to a report by Chemist4U.

Those with serious conditions can limit the total cost by purchasing a prescription prepayment certificate (PPC), which costs £108.10 for a year of “free” prescriptions. However, this may also rise with inflation and the total cost could top £600 if the age for automatic free prescriptions is lifted to 66.

The Government’s consultation acknowledged that “people may not take their prescribed medicines due to cost”, adding to the burden on GPs, hospital A&Es and social care.

If it presses ahead, it will either raise the age for free prescriptions to 66 with immediate effect, or introduce a grace period, where those who are aged between 60 and 65 when the change is made will continue to get free prescriptions.

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The Government’s consultation on the changes closed on 3 September and a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Around 90 percent of community prescriptions in England are free of charge, and people don’t pay if they are on a low income, over 60, or have certain medical conditions.

“The upper age exemption has not changed since 1995 and that is why we have consulted on restoring the link between this and the state pension age. We are considering the responses carefully and will respond in due course.”

Prescription charges in England raised £576million in 2018/19, equivalent to just 0.5 percent of the total NHS budget.

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