1 April 2008
Nearly one in 10 cancer patients are unable to get all of the drugs prescribed to them due to the high costs of prescription charges, leaving some patients forced to select their medication based on what they can afford, rather than what their doctor prescribes.
On the fortieth anniversary of introducing the medical exemptions list for some patients, Macmillan Cancer Support is calling on the Government to reform the current prescription charging system to make it fair for all patients. For instance, at the moment people with diabetes get their prescriptions for free while most people under 60 with cancer have to pay. This is simply unfair to cancer patients who are also high users of prescriptions.
Ciarán Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support says;
"The current prescription charging system which gives medical exemptions to some illnesses but not others was devised forty years ago. It simply does not reflect the fact that cancer treatment has changed and most cancer patients now live for long periods with, and after, the disease. Patients tell me they are often spending up to several hundred pounds a year on prescriptions for drugs to cope with the side effects of cancer treatment.
"The reality today is that we have very ill people asking their doctor which drugs they can do without so they can bring down the cost of their prescriptions. Cancer patients should not be put in the position of having to forgo pain relief or other drugs to save money."
Cancer patients usually need multiple prescriptions to ease distressing side effects of cancer treatment like nausea, fatigue, severe mouth ulcers, and debilitating diarrhoea and can spend hundreds of pounds each year paying for prescriptions.
Barbara, 48, a mother from Norfolk was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma (soft tissue cancer in the ankle) in 1999. She says:
"Over the years I've had so many prescriptions that I've lost count. As a single mum struggling to work, support my son and pay the daily bills, there were many times when I couldn't afford to pay. Each time I picked up the prescriptions from the GP, I'd choose which drugs not to take because I couldn't afford the total expense. Who knows if that's the reason the cancer has kept coming back."
The Government has already said that the outcome of a review into prescription charges must be "cost neutral" – meaning it refuses to consider any option that involves spending even one extra pound on the total prescriptions budget.
Macmillan believes that no one should have to pay for their prescriptions – it is a tax on illness and we are disappointed with the Government's approach so far.
Notes to Editors:
1. These figures refer to cancer patients in England only. In Wales prescription charges are free since April 2007 and in Scotland prescription charges are coming down to £5, whilst in England they are increasing again to £7.10.
2. The medical exemptions list was introduced in June 1968.
3. The Macmillan Cancer Support 2006 patient survey found that nine per cent (one in 10) of cancer patients aged under 55 years who incur costs for prescriptions charges are unable to pay for their prescriptions.
4. Improvements in cancer treatment over the past few decades mean cancer patients are increasingly using preventative drugs for years after initial cancer treatment has ended. For example patients are expected to take Tamoxifen for 5 to 10 years after initial treatment ends to help prevent a recurrence of cancer. This places a far higher cost on the patient and effectively charges them for life-extending treatment.
5. Macmillan first started campaigning for a fairer deal on prescription charges for cancer patients back in Summer 2005.
6. Macmillan asked the Health Select Committee to recommend changing the prescription exemption system to make it fairer for all patients. The Health Select Committee agreed with us and recommended a review in July 2006 to which the Government subsequently agreed.
We are still waiting on the Government to launch this much anticipated review.
Other case studies:
Alison, 45, from Derbyshire was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2007. She is married with two children.
"I'll be on Arimidex for the next seven years – if I can tolerate it that long. The side effects from my treatment drugs have been horrendous. I'd like to try alternative drugs to help reduce these terrible side effects but I can't afford them. And when my incapacity benefit finishes I don't even know if I'll continue taking Arimidex because of the cost. I simply can't afford to have cancer.
"I've lived a very healthy life. I've done nothing to deserve cancer and find it tough to understand why some groups of people get all their drugs free. It's very unfair."
Amanda, 43, married with one child and lives in the Midlands. Amanda was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2007.
"I'm facing five years on Tamoxifen. It was a real shock to find I had to pay for it. I don't begrudge anyone free prescriptions but I find it impossible to understand why a work colleague with a thyroid problem, who earns more than, me gets all her medicines free. Why not cancer patients? I'm long-term sick too."
7. For further information please contact Macmillan Cancer Support press office on Tel: 020 7840 7821 (out of hours 07801 307068).