The system of NHS charges has been branded a ‘complete mess’ by a committee of MPs.
Prescription charges, hospital parking fees and patients’ phone costs have all come under fire in a damning Health Select Committee report. It calls for a full-scale review of the current charges and in some cases recommends charges be scrapped altogether.
But the report also suggests patients who seek emergency care when they don’t need it, and those who miss GP appointments should be charged.
The MPs said charges for prescriptions, dentistry and eye tests had developed without any basis or ‘comprehensive, underlying principals’ causing them to be ‘full of anomalies’.
The list of medical exemptions to the prescription charge was singled out as being particularly confusing. It was ‘unacceptable’ that the list of conditions which exempt people from prescription charges hadn’t changed since 1968. The committee has urged the government to look into the costs and benefits of alternative systems such as abolishing the prescription charge altogether.
The MPs also called for hospital car parking fees to be scrapped for patients who need to go to hospital on a daily basis, and the introduction of ‘season tickets’ for frequent visitors.
The report said: ‘While car parking charges must remain a matter for hospital trusts, we recommend that they provide reduced rates for patients and their visitors who attend regularly and free parking for those who must attend on a daily basis.’
In 2004 – 05, hospitals in England made £78 million from their car parks; £63 million was paid by visitors and £15 million by hospital staff.
Parking and phone charges
The report also criticises hospital bedside phone charges; these are up to 49p per minute. A recorded message, which cann’t be skipped, bumps up the cost.
Kevin Barron, chair of the committee and a Labour MP, said: ‘The system of NHS charges needs to change, but first we need to know how the changes interact with health.’
Which? Principal Policy Advisor Frances Blunden said: ‘The current prescription arrangements have evolved in an ad-hoc way and are full of inconsistencies and anomalies, therefore a review is timely. A report in 2002 suggested this and the government has failed to pay heed and do anything about it.
‘However, we have real concerns about the suggestion that charges should be introduced for non-emergency patients who present at A&E. Our research on out-of-hours care show that often people look to A&E for help because they cannot get appropriate and timely care from the existing GP or primary care services or the out-of-hours services. Indeed many have been referred there by NHS Direct or other services, or in some areas there is no real alternative to A&E.’
A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘We will study the recommendations of this report carefully. We are absolutely committed to NHS treatment remaining free at the point of delivery.
‘We don’t agree with the committee that the current prescription system is in a mess. More than 87 per cent of all NHS prescription items are dispensed free of charge and there is help available to many patients on low incomes.’
‘We think that hospitals should continue to be able to charge for parking but trusts should not fleece patients unfairly.’