THE UK GOVERNMENT HAS PUT FORWARD A PROPOSAL to increase the qualifying age for free prescriptions in England from 60 to the State Pension age.

This is currently 66 for both men and women, but is on track to rise further. Age UK is warning that some of the biggest casualties of this proposed change will be older carers.

Almost one in four people in England aged 60-65 are carers – that is 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.

Age UK says 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 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 woman 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.”

Another carer 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 Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) 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. 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. A new Age UK report asserts that if the Government is serious about levelling up it must act now to save free prescriptions for all over-60s.  The DHSC’s own impact assessment accepts that those in the most deprived communities are likely to pay more as they need on average almost double the number of prescriptions of 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: “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 should contact Age UK. Calls to its national advice line are free of charge on 0800 169 65 65 (8am-7pm) or visit www.ageuk.org.uk/money Free information and advicce is also  availabe by contactng a local branch of Age UK

* Read the report Behind the Headlines: Why older people are anxious and concerned about Government plans to make them pay for their prescriptions here.

* Source: Age UK