In the UK we’re proud of our National Health system with its promise of care ‘from the cradle to the grave’. However, the cost of prescriptions for different medical conditions can soon make a dent in your budget. This article looks at this issue in depth with information and advice about:
- Whether you’re entitled to free prescriptions
- Buying a NHS prepayment certificate
- Asking your GP for repeat prescriptions in bulk
- Whether to buy from online pharmacies
According to the latest statistics from the NHS, there were 1.1 billion items prescribed by health professionals in the UK in 2017 worth a total of over £9 billion. Although prescriptions are set at a flat rate of £8.80 per item in England irrespective of prices set by pharmaceutical companies, this can soon add up if your doctor prescribes different medication for you. In this article, we look at ways to bring down the total cost of your prescription charges.
Are you entitled to free prescriptions?
Apart for free prescriptions for permanent residents of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a number of different groups in England don’t have to pay for their medication either. These include:
- recipients of certain state benefits such as income support
- holders of a valid exemption certificate
- those aged over 60
- children under 16 and those aged 16-18 in full-time education
- holders of a HC2 certificate (issued under the NHS Low Income Scheme)
To find out whether you’re entitled to free prescriptions, you should use the new tool on the website of the NHS Business Services Authority. It will ask you a number of questions about your medical history and your personal circumstances (such as whether you claim any state benefits) and will inform you if you can receive free prescriptions. As part of the NHS ‘Check Before You Tick’ campaign, you can also use the same site to check whether your exemption certificate is still valid.
At the moment, people are trusted to tick the box if they don’t need to pay for prescriptions, and the system is open to abuse. A new pilot scheme will be launched from 2019 when chemists will be able to digitally download patients’ records so they can check their eligibility for free prescriptions before they dispense anything. It is hoped this scheme will notify customers if they don’t need to pay but will also cut down on the £256 million worth of prescription fraud every year. If you don’t belong to one of the groups who are eligible for free medication, what other ways are there of reducing how much you pay in the chemists?
Buying a NHS prepayment certificate
If you suffer from an ongoing medical condition and need regular prescriptions, you should buy a NHS prepayment certificate. Available for 3 months (£29.10) or for a year (£104), this certificate can save you a lot on the cost of your prescriptions. You apply through the NHS Prescriptions site and can pay by bank card or direct debit which gives you the option of spreading the payment over time.
You can reclaim the money you pay for your prescriptions while waiting to receive the certificate, but you must ask the chemist for a NHS FP57 receipt. If your circumstances change after you purchase the certificate and you become eligible for free prescriptions, you can also reclaim any months left on it and receive a refund.
Questions on prescription charges in the UK
In 1952, prescription charges were introduced in the UK at a rate of one shilling. A flat rate of one pound was introduced as well for ordinary dental treatment. Prescription charges were then abolished in 1965, but however were reintroduced in June 1968, and remain in force until today.
A prescription in the UK in 2019 has been set to a cost of £9.00 per prescription item, 20 pence upwards of the previous rate. This change has been in effect since 1st April 2019.
It is possible for certain patients to get free prescriptions in the UK if they meet one or more of the following criteria: the patient is aged 60 or over, aged 16 or under, aged 16-18 and in full-time education, if they are pregnant or had a child in the previous 12 months, or if they are holders of a valid exemption certificate.
Asking your doctor for repeat prescriptions in bulk
Repeat prescriptions for ongoing medical conditions are often issued every 28 days. This is because of doctors’ concerns that patients might misplace their medication or the fear that some treatments can be lethal if they are stockpiled and overused.
From 2019, chemists will be able to download patients’ records to check their eligibility for free prescriptions.
Unfortunately, this situation doesn’t help patients financially as they must pay out for their new prescription every month. It has been suggested that it would be better if medications were prescribed less frequently but in larger quantities. You could ask your doctor if you could receive your medication in this way. Whether he agrees or not depends on the medication you are taking.
Are over-the-counter remedies and generic medicines worth buying?
If you are prescribed a treatment which is readily available over the counter such as for dermatological ointments or painkillers, you should check the price on the packets. Anything that costs under the flat fee of £8.80 should be purchased without a prescription.
As far as generic medications are concerned, there are lots of popular myths about their efficacy. Apart from the placebo effect of well-known brand name medications, generic medications often have exactly the same active ingredients, dosage instructions and formulation but afre up to 70% cheaper. To check if they are identical, you will need to look at the ingredients on the packets. If you’re in any doubt, ask the chemist. This is absolutely vital if you are on other medication and/or suffer from allergies (which might flare up because of the non-active ingredients in the medication.)
Less well-known is the tendency of pharmaceutical companies to market cold and flu remedies or painkillers for different groups or medical conditions. The packet might be different, but the contents are the same. You can easily find the Product Licence (PL) number on the outside and then buy the least expensive version which can be up to a third cheaper.
Should you buy from online pharmacies?
Many online pharmacies offer extremely attractive prices for different medication. However, you should be very careful about buying medicines and tablets from online chemists, especially ones which allow you to self-diagnose or don’t ask for a prescription. You should be particularly wary if the online pharmacy isn’t linked to a ‘bricks and mortar’ store and/or is based overseas. There’s always the possibility that you won’t receive the correct medication or that the medication has passed or is approaching its ‘sell by’ date.
In addition, you should always make sure that an online chemist is regulated by the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (with a link on its distinctive logo) and/or has signed up for the voluntary internet pharmacy scheme operated by the General Pharmaceutical Council.
Conclusion – Saving money on medicine
Unfortunately, all of us will need to take medicine at some point during the year especially as the winter months approach with more colds and flu bugs. However, that doesn’t mean that you should spend a fortune on your prescriptions. Even if you aren’t entitled to free prescriptions, there are many ways to save money without putting your health at risk.