Prescription price rise hits vulnerable

Increased pharmacy fees are hitting vulnerable families hard, with some fearing people will die because they can no longer afford to manage their health problems.

Standard charges for prescription medicines increased from $3 to $5 on January 1 - the first price hike in 20 years.

Patients can apply for a prescription-fee exemption card, but only after they have paid for 20 items in a 12-month period. The latest yearly cycle started on February 1, meaning high users are now feeling the pinch of price rises.

Woolston Pharmacy owner Simon Payne said the increase was coming as a shock to people who had no idea prices had gone up.

"A few of them were caught off-guard and had to run back to the car for more money. There are occasions where we have to put it on account so they can get their medications because we feel it's important for them to get it."

Some people picking up a number of prescriptions at once were putting less urgent ones on hold until they could afford to pay for them, he said.

"They can afford it, but they can't necessarily afford it today.

"A lot of people are saying it had to go up at some point, [but] $5 was too, too much for several people, especially with rent skyrocketing. For some people $3 is the limit - $5 is actually becoming quite considerable."

He believed prescription fees should be income-based, as they were before a universal $3 fee was introduced in 2007.

"The ones that didn't qualify for a community services card usually didn't qualify for a reason. That system seemed to work quite well."

A retired Hornby couple, who did not want to be named, said they were feeling the pinch after other pharmacy fees also rose this month on top of basic prescription costs.

The 76-year-old woman told The Press her husband had to take 10 different medications every day following several strokes, which his pharmacist put into a blister pack each week to help him manage what he needed to take and when.

The service had been free until this month, when the pharmacy unexpectedly said it would start charging $6 per blister pack - an extra $312 a year.

"It's going to cause so much bother for so many people. Older people doing their own medication and people with intellectual handicaps . . . they're going to mess up."

The woman rang three other pharmacies in her area and found they were charging between $5 and $10 to prepare blister packs.

"We will get through . . . but something else will have to go. I just hope it isn't maintenance on the house."

Labour Health spokeswoman Maryan Street said the fee increases could potentially have "life-threatening consequences".

"There have even been suggestions from some pharmacists that people might die as a result of these charges and I don't think that this is an exaggeration.

"It's going to be a nightmare, particularly for the elderly. People are not going to pick up their [prescriptions] or are going to over-medicate or under-medicate because they can't afford the blister packs."

The Press