Men can have free prescriptions at 60

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 28 October 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:1118

Last week men in Britain aged 60 and over became entitled to free NHS prescriptions when the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled on equal treatment of men and women. Until then, exemption from the prescription charge of pounds sterling5.25 per item had been linked to the state pension age of 60 for women and 65 for men. Within hours of the court's ruling, the British government said that it had no option but to comply. More than one million men between 60 and 64 became exempt from prescription charges the next day. Refunds will be paid to those who were charged for prescriptions in the previous three months.

The cost will be pounds sterling30m a year for lowering the age and pounds sterling10m for the refunds. The health minister, Mr Gerald Malone, said that the money would come from the Department of Health's general budget and not from funds allocated to direct patient care. He told the House of Commons that he was surprised by the court's decision and did not accept that it was good, though the government had to comply.

The decision was a vindication of individual litigation by Mr Cyril Richardson, a retired lecturer now aged 66, who objected to paying for prescriptions while his wife, aged 62, was exempt. He claimed that such discrimination was contrary to a European directive on equal treatment of men and women in matters of social security. The High Court in London referred the case to Luxembourg for a ruling. The government argued that exemption from prescription charges was a health, not a social security, scheme and that in any case there was a derogation for state pension age. The European court ruled that prescription charges were within the scope of the directive. Accordingly, the NHS regulations tying free prescriptions to retirement age were not consistent with European Union law.

The government will distribute posters and coupons to pharmacists and take space in national newspapers detailing how to claim a refund. Members of parliament who are sceptical about Europe saw it as “another humiliation” of Britain by the European Union, but a member of parliament for Labour said that it upheld the British tradition of an individual citizen fighting for justice. The government could have raised the exemption age for women to 65 but decided against doing so.--JOHN WARDEN, parliamentary correspondent, BMJ

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