Chris Lancelot - It's time to rethink the cost of OTC prescriptions on the NHS

Although the NHS is supposed to be free there are many areas where this principle is ignored.

Prescription charges apply in England; the exemption strategy is complicated and unfair, and patients acquiring OTC drugs have to pay in full, even though they could get the same medication free on prescription through their GP.

Patients consulting privately have to pay for all of their medication, even though as UK taxpayers they would receive the same drugs free if seeing that same consultant on the NHS. The whole thing is a complicated, time-consuming mess.

But there is an elegant solution. First, abandon prescription charges - that's obvious. Next, as we all pay our taxes, why shouldn't we be able to acquire non-blacklisted OTC drugs free on the NHS through pharmacies, without a GP prescription? As well as making medication more immediately accessible, this arrangement would stop the increase in GP workload from patients demanding free prescriptions for OTC drugs.

Would such a plan create a huge rush to acquire unnecessary OTC medicines? As long as there was no ability for patients to acquire medication in bulk, who would want to acquire too much? And with pharmacists checking the suitability of customers' requests, orderly, appropriate access to medication would be maintained.

The benefits of free NHS OTC drugs are clear: no one has to wait for a GP appointment. Patients could get simple medication when they or their children needed it, directly from the chemist, and free. (They would still need a prescription for non-OTC medication, but without paying a prescription charge.)

Not only would this system remove the cost of policing prescription charges, it would also free up GP time which is used for issuing and checking OTC-level prescriptions. Undoubtedly the NHS medication bill would rise and money raised by the prescription charge would be lost to the Exchequer. Nevertheless, the increased availability of healthcare, the reduction in bureaucracy and the release of expensive and scarce GP time would reap benefits.

And NHS medication would at last be truly free at the point of need.

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