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Scrapping free prescriptions for over 60s will hit England's army of fantastic unpaid carers really hard

By: Age UK
Published on 08 October 2021 12:00 AM

The Charity is warning that some of the biggest casualties of this proposed change will be older carers. Almost one in four people aged 60-65 are carers – that’s 860,000 people – fewer than one in 10 of whom receive any financial help at all through the Carer’s Allowance. Many of the 56 per cent of carers in this age group who are not in paid employment will have given up work to care for a loved one. But unless they are exempt, they will have to find the money to pay for their prescriptions on what for many will be an already very limited income.

Pressing ahead with these proposals would be a kick in the teeth for millions of poorly older people – many of whom are also unpaid carers – as well as the NHS, penalising those in need of multiple medicines to manage serious long term health conditions like heart disease and hypertension.

Many carers expressed real fear and concern to Age UK about what they will do if these changes go ahead.  One lady told Age UK: “As an unpaid carer whose only source of income is Carer’s Allowance, I need free prescriptions.  I won’t be able to afford my prescriptions if I have to pay for them, meaning my own health will deteriorate and I won’t be able to continue with my caring role.”

Another lady told the Charity: “I had to give up work at 58 to care for my husband who has severe Alzheimer’s.  I don’t yet qualify for my state pension and only get Carer’s Allowance, so money is always tight.  We already spend a small fortune on care costs, costs associated with incontinence, extra on heating, water for washing etc.  Paying for prescriptions would cause issues.”

Debbie told Age UK: “I’ve had to take an early retirement on a reduced pension to care for my husband who has dementia.  Money is tight - It feels discriminatory as the more medical conditions you have, the harder you’ll be hit.”

Almost 40,000 people responded to the DHSC’s consultation within four weeks via Age UK’s website, and just under 35,000 of them took the additional trouble to tell the Department why this will personally affect them. The report outlines their concerns and fears over what these proposals will mean for their lives. They include significant numbers from so-called Red Wall constituencies in the Midlands and North of England, who are supposed to be the focus of the Government’s levelling up agenda. The report asserts that if the Government is serious about levelling up it must act now to save free prescriptions for all over-60s.  The Department for Health and Social Care’s own impact assessment accepts that those in the most deprived communities are likely to pay more as they need almost double the number of prescriptions on average than those in the wealthiest areas.

Currently, NHS prescriptions are free for everyone in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and there is a strong public health case for heading in that direction in England too.  Age UK is calling on the Government to urgently rethink its plans to align the qualifying age for free prescriptions with the State Pension age.

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director, said: “Earlier this week the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid MP, called on families to do more to help their loved ones, seemingly unaware that his own Department is considering a policy change which, if implemented, will hit many thousands of brilliant carers in their early and mid-sixties really hard. It’s a juxtaposition that makes no sense at all and a real kick in the teeth for older carers. 

“Mr Javid is new to the job so may not yet realise that a massive one in four of all 60 to 65 year olds is a carer, often for an ageing parent, sometimes for a partner or a sick or disabled adult child. The Government cannot have it both ways: if it is serious about valuing carers – people who sacrifice so much and who save the country billions a year as a result – it should shelve the idea of making any 60-65 year old who is not exempt pay for their prescriptions, after many years of them being free.

“There is ample evidence showing that older carers often struggle with their own health problems, so making them start paying for their medication simply risks them becoming even less fit and well. When a carer’s health breaks down and they are unable to continue to care then this is not only bad news for them and their loved one, it piles extra pressure on our beleaguered health and care system too. So why is the Department of Health and Social Care considering adopting a policy that makes carer breakdown more likely, and at a time when we are not yet out of the woods of the pandemic?”

“The adverse impact on older carers of this policy proposal adds to our sense that it has not been properly thought through. One senior doctor told me it was a ‘ridiculous idea’, because it is so likely to be self-defeating. The money the NHS saves from making more people buy their medication is almost certain to be outweighed by the costs of treating health conditions that worsen because some 60-65 year olds adhere less rigorously to their prescribed treatment regimes.”

“Fortunately it’s not too late for the Government to change its mind. We are urging the Secretary of State to drop a bad idea which flies in the face of other Government priorities, one which was developed before he joined the Department.”

Any older person who is worried about money and/ or who may be entitled to claim benefits should contact Age UK by calling its national advice line free of charge on 0800 169 65 65 (8am-7pm), visiting www.ageuk.org.uk/money or contacting their local Age UK for free information and advice.

-- Ends --

Notes to editors

[i] https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/annual-reports-and-reviews/age-uk-behind-the-headlines-report.pdf

[ii] ONS mid-year population estimates for 2020 show that there are 3.8 million people aged 60-65 in England (accessed here: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/populationestimatesforukenglandandwalesscotlandandnorthernireland). The Government’s Impact Assessment (accessed here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/996781/impact-assessment-upper-age-prescription-exemption.pdf) says that 95% of people aged 60-65  use at least one prescription a year, equivalent to 3.6 million people, and that 34% of these prescription users would retain exemption from prescription charges following the proposed policy change. We therefore estimate that 2.4 million people aged 60-65 (66% of prescription users) will need to pay for prescriptions following the proposed policy change.

[iii] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/aligning-the-upper-age-for-nhs-prescription-charge-exemptions-with-the-state-pension-age

Age UK’s new Behind the Headline report can be found here

In response to the Department’s consultation, almost 40,000 people submitted responses via Age UK’s website. We believe this level of response shows the strength of concern about the proposals. We recently wrote to the Secretary of State to express our concerns along with 24 other organisations including the Royal College of GPs and Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Many clinicians are concerned about these proposals’ impact on older people’s health too.

The consultation puts forward proposals to increase the qualifying age for free prescriptions from 60 to the State Pension age, which is currently 66 for both men and women but is on track to rise further.

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Last updated: Oct 08 2021

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