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Unhealthy charges

1 April 2001

Cover of unhealthy charges

Unhealthy charges [ 240 kb] - Citizens Advice evidence the impact of charges for NHS treatment

Executive summary

  • The NHS Plan1 has set out an agenda for a fundamental modernisation of the NHS. The first of the ten core principles spelled out in the Preface to the Plan is that “The NHS will provide a universal service based on clinical mneed, not ability to pay”. But despite this clear statement, the Plan does not include any assessment of the impact of health charges for items such as prescriptions, dental and optical treatment. A key question is whether such charges are a barrier to treatment and contribute to inequalities in health. Yet with the exception of Wales, such debate as has taken place about NHS charges within Government and Parliament, has been about the case for introducing additional charges for healthcare, rather than reviewing those already in existence.
  • The CAB Service believes that the NHS Plan provides a real opportunity to review existing health charges. Such a review should be a central part of the strategy to improve access to health care for people on low incomes, and would contribute to the Government’s objectives of reducing health inequalities and ensuring fair access to services. The purpose of this report is to examine CAB evidence on the extent to which current charges for prescriptions, dental and optical care are impeding access to health care. The report is based on evidence submitted by Citizens Advice Bureaux throughout England and Wales between February 1999 and April 2001, and the findings of a survey carried out in November 2000, of 1602 CAB clients in England and Wales who had paid prescription or dental charges in the previous year.

Prescription charges

  • In April 2001, the basic prescription charge was increased to £6.10 per item in England. Significantly the Welsh Assembly decided to freeze the charge at the April 2000 rate of £6. Many people are exempt from prescription charges, for example children, people aged 60 and over, nursing and expectant mothers, people suffering from a few specified medical conditions and people on the lowest incomes. In addition, from April 2001, exemptions have been extended to 18 to 25 year olds in Wales. According to Government figures, exemptions cover about 85% of all prescriptions. However 80% of people aged between 18 and 60 have to pay for their prescriptions.
  • Prescriptions can quickly become unaffordable for people on low incomes, particularly where multiple items are prescribed and repeat prescriptions are necessary. There is no help with the cost on low income grounds as soon as incomes rise above income support levels. This creates a severe poverty trap. Many people on incapacity benefit, who by definition have health problems and are therefore likely to be heavy prescription users are particularly affected because their incapacity benefit is paid at rates only slightly above income support.
  • Key findings from the CAB survey are that 50% of clients who had paid prescription charges reported difficulties in affording the charge. And 28% had failed to get all or part of a prescription dispensed during the previous year because of the cost. By extrapolating from the sample, NACAB estimates that at least 100,000 CAB clients may be failing to get all or part of a prescription dispensed every year. People with long term health problems were particularly affected.
  • The wider extent of the problem is demonstrated by recent MORI research which asked a similar question about the extent of nondispensing of prescriptions because of the cost. They found that of those who have to pay each time they have a prescription dispensed, 7% had failed to get all or part of a prescription dispensed due to the cost. MORI estimate that this represents around three-quarters of a million people in England and Wales.
  • The impact on people’s health of this failure to afford the necessary medication is clearly illustrated. CAB evidence demonstrates that, for some people, prescription charges can be damaging to their health. People with asthma were choosing to take some rather than all of their prescribed items, others were restricting dosages of medication below the level prescribed by their GP. People with mental health problems were faced with the choice of living below the poverty line or not getting prescriptions dispensed for medication which was essential to their ability to cope in the community.
  • This must be of concern on a number of grounds. Firstly it cannot be costeffective for overall NHS expenditure, since failure to afford medication could make the need for more expensive in-patient treatment more likely. But there are also wider implications in terms of the Government’s objectives to  reduce health inequalities and to tackle social exclusion. The burden of prescription charges falls unequally, with people on lower incomes and with chronic health problems bearing the heaviest load.
  • As the Government takes stronger measures to crack down on prescription fraud, with penalty charges of up to £100 where patients are found to have falsely claimed exemption from prescription charges, it will be increasingly important to ensure that there is adequate help for those who genuinely cannot afford to pay.
  • Some help is available with budgeting for the costs of prescription charges in the shape of the pre-payment certificate or “season ticket”. Rather than paying for prescriptions as they are issued, anyone can purchase a prepayment certificate at a cost of £87.60 (£86.20 in Wales) for 12 months or £31.90 (£31.40 in Wales) for four months, which then covers all prescription charges in the period of the certificate. This can be helpful for heavy prescription users as it effectively caps the cost. However as it requires lump sum payment in advance, it is not a system which is designed to meet the needs of people managing on limited budgets. Only 5% of CAB survey respondents who had paid for prescriptions in the past year had purchased pre-payment prescription certificates. Amongst those who had difficulty in affording prescription charges, 27% said they had not bought a pre-payment prescription certificate because they could not afford it.

Dental and optical charges

  • People not entitled to free or reduced cost NHS dental treatment pay 80% of the cost of a course of NHS treatment up to a maximum of £360 (£354 in Wales). This is a significantly greater figure than for any other NHS charge.
  • Amongst the respondents in the CAB survey who had paid dental charges in the last year, nearly half had paid charges of over £50. One in five respondents had paid over £100.
  • Overall, 44% of respondents said that they had found dental charges difficult to afford. Single people under pensionable age were more likely to report difficulties in paying charges (54%), as were single parents (55%). Not surprisingly there was a positive correlation with the size of charges: 75% of the 67 respondents charged over £200 reported difficulty in paying the charge.
  • Help with optical charges for spectacles and lenses is provided by means of vouchers. However many CAB clients find that even if they are on income support and entitled to a full voucher, there is a shortfall between the value of the vouchers and the cost of the cheapest glasses available.

Travel costs

  • Where patients require health care which is not available within the local area, the cost of travel can be a major barrier for people on low incomes. In addition to local patient transport services, some help with the cost of travel to hospital is provided through the health benefits scheme, but CAB evidence demonstrates a range of failings both in terms of the complexity of the scheme and of the situations in which help is available.
  • CAB evidence indicates that people often miss out on the help to which they are entitled because of poor information provision, difficulties in obtaining the relevant claim forms and low knowledge by health professionals, resulting in misinformation to patients.
  • The health benefits scheme is also inadequate because it is only available for travel to hospitals, and not to other health outlets to which the GP may refer the patient.
  • A further problem is the lack of help with travel costs for relatives visiting patients in hospital, despite the undisputed benefit to patients of family visits. The only help available is from the social fund but this is limited to claimants in receipt of income support and income-based jobseekers allowance, and even then there is no guarantee that a grant will be made as it is a budget-limited provision.

Recommendations

  • The Government should conduct a fundamental review of NHS charges including a consideration of the case for extending the existing exemptions from charges. The review should also examine the case for abolishing all charges, as their continuation is arguably contrary to the fundamental principle of the NHS to provide a service on the basis of need and not ability to pay. NHS charges also conflict with the Government’s wider policy agenda to reduce health inequalities and to tackle social exclusion. From the perspective of CAB clients, there is a strong case for abolition. (para 5.4)

However, whilst NHS charges remain, the following are priorities for reform:

Prescription charges

  • Help with paying prescription charges should be extended to people with incomes above the exempt levels. This could be done most simply by pricing the pre-payment certificate on a sliding scale, depending on a person’s income. (para 2.43)
  • The Department of Health should take steps to promote take-up of pre-payment prescription certificates. (para 2.32)
  • The CAB Service recommends that the Department of Health introduce measures to make the purchase of pre-payment certificates more affordable, for example by allowing the purchase of pre-payment certificates on a monthly basis at one twelfth of the annual cost. (para 2.33)

Dental charges

  • There should be a significant reduction in the maximum (currently £360 in England, £356 in Wales) and in the percentage (currently 80%) of NHS dental charges which people may be liable to pay. (para 3.15)
  • All patients should be entitled to regular free dental check-ups. (para 3.10)
  • The Department of Health should commission research into the extent to which the current level of dental charges is causing hardship or preventing people seeking the treatment they need. (para 3.16)
  • The Department of Health should take steps to end the practice whereby some dentists make a refundable charge for an initial consultation before deciding whether they will accept a patient for NHS treatment. (para 3.19)
  • The British Dental Association should draw up good practice guidance on cancellation charges, to include both the level of charges and the circumstances in which they might or might not be appropriate. (para 3.21)

Optical charges

  • Glasses within the value of NHS vouchers must be available from all opticians providing NHS treatment. (para 3.25)
  • The Department of Health should collect data from opticians on the availability of glasses within the voucher values and make this information available to the public by means of NHS Direct. (para 3.26)
  • Registered blind and partially sighted people should be entitled to full vouchers, regardless of their income. (para 3.30)

Travel costs

  • The take-up of the hospital travel costs scheme should be publicised in all GP surgeries and hospitals. The proposed Patients Advocacy Liaison Service should have the co-ordination of this promotion as a specific function. (para 4.8)
  • The scope of the hospital travel costs scheme should be extended to include easier access to payment in advance, help with non-hospital travel, overnight costs where necessary, and visiting costs for family members. (para 4.17)

General

  • The Department of Health should regularly review of the level of nontake-up of the low income scheme and in particular of the help available with optical charges. (para 3.29)
  • The health poverty index currently being developed as outlined in theNHS Plan, should take account of the proportion of household income spent on health charges within the definition of health poverty, and set clear targets for eliminating health poverty over time. (para 5.5)