Chronically ill to protest against plan being put back until after general election
Gordon Brown is Chronically facing a backlash from charities representing up to 15 million people with long-term health conditions after it emerged a promise to give them all free prescriptions is likely to be shelved until after the general election.
The prime minister made the pledge to people with conditions such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes and depression in his speech at the Labour party conference in September 2008. Instead of implementing the change for all those patients, it is now expected to be included in the party’s manifesto.
A coalition of 20 health charities fears that, with Labour behind in the opinion polls and the Tories giving no firm commitment to the plan, the promise will never be realised. Mikis Euripides, director of policy and public affairs for Asthma UK, which is leading the coalition, said: “If the Labour party decides to put something in the manifesto instead of acting now, that would be a complete failure on the part of the prime minister to keep a promise.”
Mariam Kemple, policy and campaigns officer at Mind, a mental health charity, said: “We represent many millions of people and, if this does not happen, we will be up in arms.”
The coalition, which also includes the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK, the Stroke Association and Rethink, is calling on its members to begin a campaign of direct action this week, writing to local MPs and the prime minister to demand the promise be fulfilled before the election.
Meanwhile, 172 MPs have signed an early day motion urging the prime minister to implement the policy. They say they fear “the recession has made it harder for large numbers of people with long-term conditions to pay for their prescriptions and that many are going without vital medicines”. They claim “the government has identified savings from the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme of around £550m per year from 2010, which will be more than sufficient to cover the £250m-£350m cost”.
Both groups have expressed concern that a major review of prescription charges by Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, has not been published by ministers. The report, which is expected to call for charges to be dropped for millions, was supposed to come out before Christmas.
Party sources point out that Brown promised first to abolish charges for cancer patients, which happened in April 2009. The pledge for those with long-term conditions was for a later date – and only when savings had been made by shifting to cheaper generic drugs. They insist that Labour will show its commitment to those suffering long-term conditions with plans to allocate every such patient a named GP, health-worker or nurse, who would provide them with a tailored care plan. A spokesman for the Department of Health said the government remained committed to its pledge and added: “We will set out our plans for improved support for patients with long-term and chronic conditions in the coming weeks, including our plans to abolish prescription charges.”
The issue of prescription charges has come under intense scrutiny in the past year. The British Medical Association has argued for all charges to be dropped. Dr Kailash Chand, the north-west member of the BMA’s national council and chair of a primary care trust, said: “The system is unfair. Making the list of exemptions longer will not make it fairer.” The Conservatives accused the prime minister of “dithering”. Mark Simmonds, the shadow health minister, said: “Labour seems to have no idea how it will actually pay for this pledge.”
From the Observer