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Patients abusing free drug policies.

Byline: By Madeleine Brindley and Sarah Miloudi Western Mail

Everyday items like milk of magnesia and aspirin are still being handed over as part of Wales' free prescription scheme, the Western Mail can reveal today. News of the prescriptions - described by one politician yesterday as "a scandalous waste of public money" - has prompted a consumer watchdog to call for an inquiry.

As part of the landmark policy, patients are continuing to be prescribed everyday, cheap over-the-counter items, such as 74p pots of Vaseline and low-cost tubes of Bonjela.

A snapshot survey of prescribing in Wales during August also reveals that prescriptions are being issued for paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen, which cost as little as 1p per pill to buy in a high street chemist or supermarket.

Even popular branded multivitamins and the common indigestion remedy milk of magnesia have been claimed on free prescriptions by patients.

The worrying data comes two months after the Western Mail first revealed such prescribing behaviour in the months following the introduction of free prescriptions in Wales.

Jonathan Morgan, the Welsh Shadow Health Minister, said, "This is an abuse and a scandalous waste of public money.

"The Government has to firm up the guidelines on prescribing and ensure that these items, which are relatively cheap and which anyone can afford - regardless of whether they are on benefits or are a millionaire - are not part of free prescriptions.

"We were told that free prescriptions were there to help those in desperate need who required a substantial number of prescriptions because of their poor health. The money should be targeted at those who are genuinely in need - those who want items like Bonjela and milk of magnesia can pay for them themselves."

The latest prescription statistics reveal that the average person in Wales used the equivalent of pounds 187 worth of prescription drugs last year.

And the number of prescriptions written in Wales rose by 4% in 2006-07, coinciding with a reduction in the fee to pounds 3 per item.

The landmark free prescription scheme - the only one of its kind in the UK - is expected to cost Wales pounds 32m this year.

Although prescriptions are free in Wales - the charge was scrapped in April, while it went up in England to pounds 6.85 per item - the system still costs the health service money to dispense each item. Each prescription item processed by a pharmacist costs in the region of 90p to pounds 1 to the NHS.

Dr David Bailey, chair of the Welsh GP committee, said, "It is not most GPs' view that patients have abused free prescriptions. Most patients have had free prescriptions for years falling under the old age or income exemptions and they understand that the NHS is not a bottomless pit.

"GPs only have to prescribe what they feel is clinically necessary for the treatment of the patient.

"This may indeed include paracetamol in many cases. In any event patients by and large attend the GP when they think they have a medical reason - not in order to save 40p on a packet of paracetamol."

The evidence of prescribing trends in Wales in the first five months of the scheme would suggest that some doctors' fears about abuse of the system are founded.

Some GPs have spoken of patients putting them under pressure to prescribe over-the-counter medicines such as hayfever remedies, which can cost less than a pound to buy.

Although Labour abolished the prescription fee just before this year's Assembly elections, previously only one in five people paid for their medicines. And, despite removing one of the largest and last "taxes on illness", the scheme has mainly benefited the better off and those with chronic illnesses not covered by the old exemptions.

Rhys Evans, acting director of the Welsh Consumer Council, said, "I would like to see research being done into why people are being prescribed these items, as when most people require an immediate cure for a headache, they do not go to their GP surgeries. Some people may not take aspirin if their doctor did not prescribe it for them, or it could be that people are being given these items as part of treatment for another illness.

"In Wales there are high rates of illnesses, and one does have to have sympathy with politicians trying to do something to improve the health of the nation.

"However, consumers do have the right to free prescriptions, so we need to know why people are being prescribed items in order to have a serious debate on the effectiveness of the policy.

"We need to weigh up the positives of the policy against its benefits."

A spokesman for the Welsh Assembly Government told the Western Mail, "GPs are responsible for ensuring that medication is prescribed based on the patient's clinical needs to avoid the risk of people trying to abuse free prescriptions.

"We have stressed that patients needing over-the-counter drugs, which are medications that do not require a prescription, should continue to buy them in the normal way. "Patients should use common sense and not seek to abuse the privilege of having free prescriptions as this could have a detrimental effect on them and their families in the long term. "We regard free prescriptions as a long-term investment in managing conditions and improving health which will ultimately reduce the cost and pressure on the health service from things such as emergency admissions."
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 5, 2007
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