Prescription Charges (Long-term Conditions): 10th July 2013

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry)
I congratulate my—I have to say—hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) on securing the debate, although I do not think that he made much of a friendly speech, and I have no doubt that he will not be much impressed by my response. He rightly brings the subject before the House, as is his right, and so he should. However, I think that we have to be completely realistic and honest about the situation in which we find ourselves. The simple truth is that if we extended the exemptions to all long-term conditions it would cost a considerable amount of money, and, in the words of a member of the previous Government, there is no money. I am very proud of the fact that the coalition has been able to secure the NHS budget at a time when we have had to take tough decisions and cut other budgets. We have not only maintained the NHS budget; by 2015 we will have seen a rise in the amount of money going into the NHS under the tenure of this Government. I am very proud of that.

My hon. Friend asked whether it is right and fair that all these long-term conditions do not receive free prescriptions. He then drew a contrast with people who, in his words, have “self-inflicted lifestyle choices”, referring to those who have drug addition, alcohol addiction, obesity problems and so on. I would challenge him on that. I do not take the view that it would be right in any way, shape or form to make such suggestions about people who are having their prescriptions paid for because of their income status but have those afflictions. I can assure him that addiction is not some lifestyle choice. Many people who are addicts are born addicts; it is a disease that needs treatment, and those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from it need our support. I am sure that he is not suggesting that we should take money away from those unfortunate people in order to give it to those who are, I accept, equally in need.

Sir Bob Russell
I regret that the Minister is drawing an inference that I did not intend in any way. I was merely making a comparison in saying that some people have been dealt unfairly with by mother nature in having to pay to stay alive, whereas others who we are told can be treated are, for whatever reason, getting free treatment.
Anna Soubry
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has made that point, because some people, I can assure him, would have made such an interpretation. I am pleased that we have set the record straight.

In fact, the current system does provide support for people who need it the most. In 2011, for example, about 94% of all prescription items were dispensed free of charge at the point of dispensing. It is estimated that about 60% of people in England are exempt from charges. A wide range of exemptions exist to help the most vulnerable, those requiring prescriptions the most and those most in need of support. People aged 60 and over, women who are pregnant or are in the 12-month period following childbirth, those on income support, those with pension credit, those on income-based jobseeker’s allowance, those on income-related employment and support allowance, and those in receipt of a variety of tax credits all rightly receive free prescriptions.​

As we have heard, people who use prescriptions frequently can buy a prescription prepayment certificate that allows anyone to obtain all the prescriptions they need for the equivalent of £2 per week. The cost of the annual prescription prepayment certificate has been frozen at £104 for the past four years, and the cost of the three-monthly certificate has been frozen at £29.10 for two years. There are options whereby people can pay by direct debit. I concede that the system is not perfect, but it is very good.

My hon. Friend asked, properly, why we have this system in England whereas in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland prescriptions are free. I am sure that he knows the answer: health is a devolved matter. It is for those in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide how they will spend their budget. The simple truth is that making prescriptions free for all in those countries has taken money away from other areas of their health budget. We have decided to spend our allocation of money in a different way, and rightly so, especially when we consider that the prepayment certificate of £104 a year is eminently fair for people who are unfortunate enough to have the long-term conditions that my hon. Friend identified and described. It is important to put forward that argument as well.

As it happens, I suffer from a long-term condition—asthma—and have the benefit of an excellent GP. I am sure that that will not win me any extra favours with my hon. Friend—although I am sure he will be grateful for my comments—but I, like most of us, have an outstanding GP who has made sure that my medication is at such a level that I do not now need a prepayment certificate, because we are managing my condition.

I am not suggesting that one should always be alert to the financial cost of issuing prescriptions, but I think it is right and fair to say that many general practitioners are aware of it. Increasingly, prescribing GPs—in other words, all GPs—are taking on the huge responsibility of bearing in mind the cost to the national health service of the prescriptions they issue their patients.

I pay tribute to the Prescription Charges Coalition, which has worked with officials in my Department to help raise awareness of the help available to patients with the cost of their prescriptions, particularly the prescription prepayment certificate. The awareness-raising work with the PCC has already had encouraging results. Purchases of certificates in the first quarter of this year were 13% higher—about 50,000 extra—than in the same period in 2012, when this work began. We continue to work with the PCC to consider how we might build further on that awareness-raising activity.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions and I hope I will be able to answer them all. If not, the usual rules will apply and my officials will, of course, write to him. Since 1968 the only condition that has been added to the list is cancer in September 2008, as announced by the then Prime Minister. I pay tribute to the work of Sir Ian Gilmore. The Health Committee has produced a report and answers have been provided, but I think it is fair to say that this is all about cost. I accept that things have changed a lot since the late 1960s, but the simple reality is that if we extended free prescriptions to all long-term conditions it would cost an incredible amount of money, and I am afraid to say that that is money that we simply do not have.​

It would be very difficult to consider particular conditions in isolation and to somehow choose one. My hon. Friend has advanced the case of cystic fibrosis and one can understand why: nobody chooses to have cystic fibrosis; it is a thoroughly unpleasant condition.

Sir Bob Russell
I did say that I was using cystic fibrosis as an example of various long-term conditions. All I ask is that the Minister and her officials look at the recommendations of Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, because at least that would give some encouragement to people with long-term conditions that the Government were looking at their situation seriously.

Anna Soubry
That is a valid point, well made, but the Government’s attitude is that it would not be right in the current situation to look at just one particular condition in isolation, because others would argue, with vigour—and rightly so—that their condition was as valid of an exemption as any other.

My hon. Friend asked why the Government have not introduced more flexible prescribing patterns and moved away from the 28-day prescribing policy. The responsibility for prescribing, including repeat prescriptions and the duration of prescriptions, rests with GPs and other doctors who have the expertise and who rightly take clinical responsibility for that particular aspect of a patient’s care. Doctors can prescribe flexibly and take decisions about prescribing patterns on the basis of a patient’s need. Ultimately the decision must be left to the doctor, but guidance has been issued by the National Prescribing Centre about prescription terms, encouraging prescribers to be receptive to the needs of patients and to use appropriate prescribing patterns.

My hon. Friend asked about the lack of relevant data on the costs and consequences of the current prescription charging system. At the moment, some £450 million is raised each year by charging people for their prescriptions, which is equivalent to about 13,500 qualified nurses or 3,500 hospital consultants per year. One can see the power of that money from prescription charging, but given the lack of relevant data, more research is needed ​to inform policy. It is important that we make best use of the available evidence and identify gaps in knowledge. We would, of course, welcome input from groups such as the Prescription Charges Coalition about any evidence it is aware of or studies that may have been undertaken in that area. That would help inform any research proposals that the Department of Health might consider in its assessment of research priorities. I hope that may be of interest and comfort to my hon. Friend.

As I have said, the Government report that 90% of prescription items are dispensed without charge, but up to three quarters of those of working age with long-term conditions are believed to pay for their prescriptions. Current exemptions provide valuable help for those on the lowest incomes. They must always be our priority because they simply do not have the means to pay for a large number of prescriptions.

Older people generally have the greatest need for medicine, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will have visited a pharmacy and seen, as I did in my constituency, the amount of medication that is often required for older people, which can be quite astronomical in size and complexity. Many older people have good, long, happy and healthy lives because of the abundance of medicines they receive, and that is one reason why we have an exemption for older people.

Although people with long-term conditions will continue to pay for their prescriptions, the prescription prepayment certificate ensures that they can pay at considerably reduced cost. By repeatedly freezing the price of a prescription prepayment certificate and introducing a direct debit payment option to spread the cost of a 12-month certificate, we ensure that those certificates are accessible to those who need multiple prescriptions.

I am happy to take an intervention, but I hope I have explained the Government’s current policy. It is right and proper for this issue to be raised, but at the moment the simple truth is—it gives no one any pleasure to say this—we simply do not have the money to do all that my hon. Friend urges on me.

Question put and agreed to.