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The Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) needs to come clean about its plans, sooner rather than later. This issue has dragged on long enough.
This month marked a whole year since the government published its consultation on aligning the upper age exemption for NHS prescription charges with the State Pension age. If the plan is implemented, the qualifying age would jump from 60 to 66, meaning millions could face charges for an extra six years, costing them a small fortune.
This could hammer millions with chronic conditions who currently get their NHS prescriptions for free. Having to pay the £9.35 prescription fee would pile on further misery as prices rocket, worsening the cost of living crisis.
The government argues that many people aged from 60 to 65 remain in employment and can therefore afford to cover the cost. And it is true that many can. But many cannot afford it, especially now, and making them pay would be a massive burden.
Large numbers could stop taking their prescriptions, simply because they cannot afford them.
The prospect is spreading anxiety among those who are already suffering with their health.
Charging the over 60s for NHS prescriptions would be so unpopular I’m not surprised the Government is dragging its feet.
No doubt the current Tory leadership campaign will stretch things out even further, so we may not have an answer till the autumn, and probably much later than that. The agony looks set to roll on and on.
The DWP has tried to play down the impact, reeling out the line that around 90 percent of community prescription items in England are free of charge.
People don’t pay if they are on a low income, over 60 years old, or have certain medical conditions.
Yet Express.co.uk readers regularly point out in comments below our articles that they have to pay for NHS prescriptions, despite being in low paid jobs.
Their incomes are being squeezed by all sides, yet not quite enough for them to claim the benefits that would grant them free prescriptions.
Another issue is that by linking free prescriptions to the State Pension age, the qualifying age will grow and grow.
The retirement age will rise to 67 from 2026, and thereafter to 68 and most likely beyond. Yet growing numbers fall ill in their late 50s and early 60s, and face years of paying for essential treatment.
As the DWP dithers over its decision, suspicions over its intentions will only grow. Some Express readers have even argued that the plan is a way of killing off the elderly, to save the government money. It’s a regular refrain.
While I wouldn’t accuse the government of such outright mendacity, it is easy for mistrust to grow in a void. Others are furious that prescriptions are free for everybody in Scotland and Wales. They feel the English are being treated unfairly.
The issue is causing a lot of bitterness.
As my colleague Patrick O’Donnell pointed out on Tuesday, the most vulnerable elderly people on multiple prescriptions have to spend hundreds of pounds a year on medication.
Age UK has said there is a strong public health case for giving everyone in England free prescriptions, rather than heading in the opposite direction.
The worry is huge and it won’t go away until the DWP decides. Its response when Express reporters ask is always the same: “We are considering the responses carefully and will respond in due course.”
Personally, I think the DWP will press ahead with the change. It has pointed out that the upper age exemption for free prescriptions used to align with State Pension age, but that link has been lost over the years.
There’s a cold financial logic to linking the two dates.
The Government has also pointed out that prescription charges are an important source of NHS income, and the costs of providing them will continue to increase with our ageing population.
We know what it’s thinking. It need to tell us now, not in “due course”.
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