Extensive arrangements are in place to help people to afford national health service prescriptions. Those include a broad range of prescription charge exemptions, for which someone with a chronic illness may qualify.
I think the Minister is being too complacent. The chronic illnesses list has not been updated for years, and I have had complaints from Mr E with coeliac disease, Mrs L with multiple sclerosis and Mr A with cystic fibrosis—he is taking up to 50 tablets a day. With each item costing £9, can the Minister not see how much hardship this is putting on people?
There have been NHS prescription charges in England for decades, and successive Governments have concluded that patients who can afford it should pay prescription charges in order to contribute to the running of the NHS, but a huge number of exemptions are in place and mean that, in England, 89% of NHS prescription items dispensed in the community are currently provided free of charge. People on low incomes who do not qualify for an exemption will be eligible through the NHS low-income scheme.
Prescriptions not only include pharmaceuticals, so I congratulate the Secretary of State on the launch of a national academy for social prescribing, which he pushed through with his own energy and enthusiasm. Prescribing alternative treatments such as art therapy and speech and language therapy can have a massive impact on people’s mental health and on many other ailments. This Department has undertaken a revolutionary step, and I wholeheartedly congratulate him and all his Ministers.
The right hon. Gentleman plays down his role in this agenda; he has been a great champion for social prescribing. All of us in the Department’s Front-Bench team have met people for whom social prescribing has been life changing; it has totally changed the way they are able to deal with their symptoms and illnesses. It really is a massive game changer.
But of course modesty is the right hon. Gentleman’s middle name.
With one in three arthritis sufferers missing out on at least one prescription due to cost, what can the Minister say to the pensioner in Barnsley who has had their pension cut, lost their local bus service and now lost out on the treatment that enables them to simply walk down the street? Is it not time the Government matched Labour’s promise, and invested in pensions, services and free prescriptions on the NHS?
I simply say to the hon. Lady that people over the age of 60 qualify for free prescriptions.
Too many patients cut back on their prescribed medicines or go without them altogether because they simply cannot afford to pay prescription charges. Research by University College London indicates that this non-adherence to prescribing regimes costs the NHS £500 million more in complex treatments and hospitalisation. Prescription charges are a tax on sickness that disproportionately burdens those who have chronic illnesses and those on low incomes. Does the Minister agree that it is high time we brought an end to these charges, which fly in the face of the principle of an NHS free at the point of delivery?
I suppose I should probably have declared an interest in this issue, because I am severely asthmatic and I do not get free prescriptions, but then again I do not think I should. There is a prescription exemption system designed specifically to assist people who are most likely to need support in paying for prescriptions: people on low incomes or in full-time education; the over-60s; people living with many long-term conditions; an d people with an increased risk of illness, such as pregnant women. That is why 89% of prescriptions are dispensed without charge.