With a rise in patient demand, a growing workload and the added pressure of staff who are off sick or at home self-isolating, COVID-19 has put huge pressure on the already stretched community pharmacy workforce.
As the NHS frontline and the only part of the health service patients can walk into without an appointment and still be seen, pharmacy teams are under incredible strain. With many GP surgeries closing and NHS 111 overwhelmed with enquiries, community pharmacy is at times the only service people can easily access – leading to incredible patient demand on the sector.
That is why C+D is today (April 1) – on the day the prescription charge goes up from £9 to £9.15 – launching a campaign for the prescription charge in England to be dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the discussion to abolish the prescription charge in England – bringing it in line with the policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – is not a new one – the outbreak has made the issue more pressing than ever.
“Not fair on patients”
Reena Barai, owner of S G Barai Pharmacy in Sutton, Surrey, told C+D that dealing with the prescription charge is “unnecessary bureaucracy at the moment that we could really do without”.
Community pharmacist and academic Babir Malik said his view is that “the prescription charge should be scrapped for good and not just during COVID-19”, as it “places an extra administrative burden on the pharmacy”.
Importantly, Mr Malik added, the prescription charge is also not “fair on patients who sometimes have to choose which medicine they do and don’t get dispensed”.
With the economic consequences of COVID-19 already leading to business closures and redundancies, Ms Barai said her pharmacy has seen an increase in patients who can’t afford to pay for their prescriptions.
“Yesterday, we had several patients who normally pay for their scripts who said, ‘I’ve applied for universal credit’ or ‘I’m asking for jobseekers allowance or income support because I’ve been laid off.’” Patients who normally pay for their prescriptions now have “a reason to be exempt”, she says.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who has written an excusive blog backing the prescription charge to be scrapped, told C+D yesterday (March 31) that “the government should immediately suspend” the fee. Doing so is “the right and compassionate thing to do at a time when so many people are worried about their health”, she said.
“Scrapping the charge would also greatly help pharmacists, who are working on the frontline of this crisis to ensure people get their medication. Their energy and efforts at this time should be used to source and provide medication for their patients, rather than administrating these charges”, Ms Moran added.
“Capacity we don’t have right now”
Pharmacies are also finding that the rapidly rising number of people who need home deliveries as a result of self-isolating is significantly increasing the administrative burden of the prescription charge. “We are delivering to patients who are self-isolating [and] we have to contact them before we deliver and take over-the-phone payments for the prescription charge. Sometimes we‘re [also] having to chase them when they haven’t paid,” Ms Barai said.
Mike Hewitson, owner of Beaminster Pharmacy in Dorset told C+D that COVID-19 has made the burden of processing the prescription charge “10 times worse”. Taking calls from self-isolating patients “probably ties somebody up for five minutes…which is capacity we really don’t have right now”, he said.
“Most pharmacies have only got one, maximum two, phone lines. So, if you’ve got one line tied up taking card payments, you’re not taking repeat prescription requests, you’re not handling clinical queries and you’re not helping patients getting the best from their medicines”, Mr Hewitson added.
Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) Simon Dukes told C+D yesterday that the negotiator supports waiving the prescription charge.
“This is a government tax that community pharmacy teams should not have to collect for them. The charge may be even more difficult for some patients to afford in the current COVID-19 pandemic environment, and collecting it is another administrative burden for pharmacies, especially where patients are staying at home,” Mr Dukes said.
Removing the prescription charge during the COVID-19 outbreak would also mean reducing the need for pharmacy teams to handle money at time when infection control means most businesses are trying to keep this to a minimum.
“Even if [the prescription charge] is only scrapped during COVID-19, that’s still helpful to everyone as there will be less cash being shared around – reducing the risk of contamination as not everyone uses contactless payments,” Mr Malik said.
“At this critical time for the health service, we want to see community pharmacy teams free to spend all their time on the increasingly demanding job of ensuring that patients can continue to get the medicines and advice that they need,” Mr Dukes said.
Tweet us using the hashtag #ScrapScriptCharges to have your say on scrapping the prescription charge