MPs Attack ‘Mess’ of NHS Charges

The system of NHS charges – covering parking fees, phone costs, eye tests, prescriptions and dental care in England is a “mess”, MPs say. A health select committee report calls for a review of the existing system. It suggests prescription charging should be revamped and parking made free for those who have to go to hospital for daily treatment. The government said it would consider the MPs’ report carefully, but denied charges were a mess.

The select committee’s report said: “In the future, it may not be possible for the NHS to pay for every possible medical treatment.”

The report suggests charging patients who go to A&E for non-emergency care and those who miss GP appointments. It said the government should undertake a full scale review in order to find out the cost and benefits of alternatives systems – such as abolishing all of the existing health charges, or abolishing the prescription charge.

The MPs renewed calls for a reassessment of the medical exemption list – where people with certain conditions do not have to pay for prescriptions, whatever their income.

The list dates from 1968 – and is outdated, the committee said.

The MPs said that, in addition to scrapping car park charges for those who need to go to hospital daily for care, there should also be “season tickets” for frequent visitors.
In 2004-05 hospitals charged £78m for car park use – £63m of which was paid by the public. The health select committee report also attacked bedside phone charges, with incoming calls costing up to 49p a minute, calling the cost of receiving calls from relatives and friends “insupportable”.

Kevin Barron, chair of the committee and Labour MP, said: “The system of NHS charges needs to change, but first we need to know how the charges interact with health.
“In the short term, parking fees should be reduced – or eliminated altogether – for patients attending hospital regularly.

“It is unacceptable that people have to pay hundreds of pounds to attend for necessary treatment.”

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, welcomed the parking cost cuts proposals. “Cancer treatment involves a lot of expensive machinery – a hospital parking meter should not be one of them.”

John Appleby of independent think-tank the King’s Fund, said: “It is not the role of the health service to raise money through charges and co-payments. “This should be done through general taxation through which the vast majority of healthcare is funded.”

Michael Summers, from the Patients Association, said there were many people with small incomes who were put off using the NHS by charges. “It is basically wrong to make money out of patients and their families.”

Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents over 90% of NHS organisations, said she agreed the charging system should be reviewed.

But she said hospitals often had limited parking space and could not provide free parking for patients. “They can also fall prey to unscrupulous shoppers who take advantage of free parking in hospitals. This is why charges are used as a way of managing demand.”

She said many hospitals already had schemes to give patients receiving ongoing treatment free or cheap parking. “It is important to understand that this is not about making a profit out of patients – it is about managing demand and covering the costs of maintaining a car park.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: “We will study the recommendations of this report carefully. We are absolutely committed to NHS treatment remaining free at the point of delivery.”

But she said the current prescription system was not “in a mess”, and more than 87% of all NHS prescription items are dispensed free of charge.

She added: “We think that hospitals should continue to be able to charge for parking but trusts should not fleece patients unfairly.

“We will also be asking trusts to make their policies on mobile phone use clear to patients. Any savings made should be reinvested into patient care.”