The government is running a consultation on increasing the upper age exemption for NHS prescription charges to the State Pension age (SPA).
The consultation seeks views from the public, healthcare organisations and staff on options for implementing a change in the age at which people in England become eligible for free prescriptions from the current age of 60, to 66 years of age.
One option includes introducing a grace period meaning people aged 60 to 65 at the point of any change can continue to receive free prescriptions.
The consultation does not propose any other changes to existing exemptions from charges, which remain in place for a range of ages and vulnerable groups or those on low incomes.
At the launch of the consultation on 1 July 2021, Health Minister James Bethell said:
“We are committed to improving patient care and supporting the NHS with the funding it needs to recover from this pandemic. The upper age exemption for free prescriptions used to align with the State Pension age, but that link has been lost over the years.
“Prescription charges are an important source of income for the NHS, and the costs of providing free prescriptions continue to increase with our aging population.
“I encourage anyone with views on our proposals to share them through the consultation response form, available online on GOV.UK.”
The government said prescription charges make an important contribution to the NHS budget. Between 2015 to 2016 and 2019 to 2020, it said prescription charges generated over £2.8 billion for the NHS.
It estimates the change could bring in up to £300 million more for the NHS by 2026 to 2027.
Currently, people receive free prescriptions when they turn 60 in England. This has not changed since 1974 for women, and 1995 for men. The State Pension age in England is currently 66 and is planned to increase further for men and women to 68 between 2037 and 2039.
As increasing numbers of people live longer, there are more people claiming free prescriptions.
The government said that by 2066, there will be a further 8.6 million projected UK residents aged 65 years and over, which will be 26% of the total population.
Out of 1.1 billion items dispensed in 2018 in England, almost 90% of prescription items dispensed in the community were free of charge thanks to a range of exemptions which are in place.
Exemptions are currently in place for:
- Those of a certain age – that is, those under 16, 16 to 18 in full time education, and those aged 60 and over
- Those on a low income – that is, via certain DWP benefits, tax credits and the NHS Low Income Scheme
- Those with certain medical conditions and expectant or new mothers