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Raising minimum age for free prescriptions will increase hospital admissions

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Written by: Emma Lunn
02/09/2021
Age UK has warned that tens of thousands more people may require hospital treatment each year if they ration their medication due to no longer being eligible for free prescriptions.

People aged 60 and over can currently get their prescriptions for free on the NHS in England. But the government is consulting on whether this age should increase to be aligned with the state pension age, which is currently 66 and expected to rise in the future.

Health charities, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the British Geriatrics Society have joined together to write an open letter, urging the government to rethink its proposal to raise the qualifying age for free prescriptions in England.

The letter highlights the organisations’ “deep shared concern” that scrapping free prescription charges for 60 to 65-year-olds is likely to intensify existing health inequalities and have a devastating impact on some older people’s health.

The group says that with many older people already struggling to meet basic living costs, this additional levy on poor health could prevent them from managing their health conditions, especially if they are on a modest income but still above the benefits line.

The letter continues by highlighting how the government’s proposal will have a lasting adverse impact on the half (52%) of 60 to 64-year-olds with one or more long term conditions. It says that while some patients will find the change affordable, significant numbers will not.

The group warns that these patients will find it harder to proactively manage their conditions, and could seek medical help as their conditions deteriorate. Analysis by Age UK found that each year, tens of thousands of people may require hospital treatment, having cut back on their medication due to no longer being eligible for free prescriptions.

The Department of Health and Social Care estimates that raising the age for free prescriptions will save the NHS between £198m and £257m a year. But this is a tiny fraction of the £212.1bn NHS budget.

This estimate also doesn’t take into account the extra costs to local health services from addressing the more complex issues that will arise for the patients who feel unable to afford their medication. These patients are more likely to live in more deprived communities, with services that are more overstretched and under-resourced than in more affluent areas.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “The money the government raises if it goes ahead with this proposal will be easily outweighed by the additional costs to the NHS if, as is predictable, some people fail to take their medication and become sicker, more quickly. Tens of thousands may require hospital treatment due to rationing what they take, so this really is a bad idea that will hit people who are poorly and on modest incomes hardest of all.

“Once we reach our early to mid-60s many of us are advised by our doctors to take medicines that are proven to keep potentially serious health conditions safely under control. If the government goes ahead with its proposal, it is clear that some people will be reluctant to act on symptoms or get a diagnosis, for fear they will be unable to afford long term, symptom relieving or even in some cases lifesaving medication. The government should definitely think again.”

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