Hundreds of thousands of patients in England are paying more than they need to for NHS prescriptions and could save an average of almost £50 a year by getting a 'prescription prepayment certificate', data obtained by reveals.

Figures disclosed by the NHS Business Services Authority under the Freedom of Information Act show that 825,677 people paid for 13 or more prescription items in the 2016/17 financial year – meaning they each shelled out at least £109.20 on medicine.

Yet an NHS prescription prepayment certificate, which is basically a season ticket for prescriptions and means you pay once and then get free prescriptions for the period covered, costs £104 for 12 months. So all of those who bought 13 or more prescription items could have saved at least £5.20 by buying the season ticket – and on average would have made a saving of close to £50.

As a rule of thumb, if you pay for at least 13 prescriptions in a year – or four in a three-month period – you can likely save with a prepay certificate, though of course not everyone knows how many prescriptions they'll end up needing in a year. See full info and more ways to cut the cost of prescriptions in our 22 Medicine Savings guide.

What do the NHS figures show?

Our figures relate to the number of people in England who paid for more than 12 prescription items in 2016/17. (In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this doesn't apply as prescriptions are free. Some also qualify for free prescriptions in England, for example if you're under 16, 60 or over, or pregnant – see a list of exemptions.)

The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), which oversees prescription charging and prescription prepayment certificates, gave us the following figures:

Patients (aged 16-59) paying for 13 or more prescription items in a year

Year Number of patients Total prescription items bought (1) Average number of items bought per patient (2)
2015/16 745,208 13,384,110 17.96
2016/17 825,677 14,759,074 17.88
(1) By those who paid for 13 or more prescriptions. (2) By those who paid for 13 or more prescriptions – average used is the 'mean'.

In the two years for which full figures are available, among those who paid for more than 12 prescriptions a year the average number of prescriptions paid for was approximately 18 – in which case, the saving in 2016/17 would have been £47.20.

In 2017/18, the NHSBSA was able to provide us with data for April to October. In this period, 189,366 people paid for more than 12 prescription items, but it's worth noting this number will likely rise at a faster rate towards the end of the financial year.

How to check if you can save with a prepay certificate

A prepayment certificate can mean big savings. Anyone who lives in England can apply for one, though check if you're eligible for free prescriptions first. A three-month certificate costs £29.10, while a year's costs £104 – and it'll cover all your prescriptions in that time.

The amount you can save with a prescription prepayment certificate depends on how many prescriptions you pay for and over what period, but, roughly, getting one will help you save if you pay for more than one prescription a month.

Prescription items currently cost £8.60 (up from £8.40 in 2016/17), so if you'll buy four in a three-month period, a three-month prepay certificate can save you £5.30. If you get 13 over the course of a year, a 12-month prepay certificate works out cheaper and can save you £7.80 – and if you need more, you'll save more.

Before you get a prepay certificate, always check if you qualify for an exemption and can avoid paying for a prescription entirely. You can get free prescriptions if you're under 16 or over 60, are in full-time education and aged 16-18, you're pregnant or have had a baby in the past 12 months, you're an NHS inpatient, you or your partner receives income support and for a number of other reasons – see a list of exemptions.

Consider too that if you're prescribed common medication such as painkillers or dermatology creams that are also available over the counter, often it's cheaper to buy them that way than spend £8.60 on a prescription.

How to buy a prepay certificate

The easiest way to apply is through the NHS Prescriptions site. You can pay by card or – if buying a 12-month certificate – by direct debit to spread the cost in 10 monthly instalments. Forms are also available at certain pharmacies, or alternatively call 0300 330 1341.

If you become eligible for free prescriptions after buying a certificate, you can reclaim the proportional cost for the remaining time.

You can backdate a prepay certificate – but only by a month

If you've realised you're getting a lot of prescriptions and a certificate is worth your money, you can also buy one and backdate it, but only by one month – see the NHS website for more info.

To do this, you'll need an NHS receipt (technically known as an 'FP57') from the pharmacist when you paid for your prescription. So if you're paying for a prescription and there's any chance you might want to get a prepay certificate later and backdate it, make sure you get one.

Revealed: 800,000 could have saved with a prescription 'season ticket' last year
100,000s of NHS patients are paying more than they need to for their prescriptions

'Many missing out on savings'

Steve Nowottny, news and features editor at, said: "These stats show that a huge number of patients are paying more than they need to for medicine prescribed on the NHS – and in many cases could save almost £50 over the course of a year.

"If you're going to need 13 or more items on prescription in the course of a year and you don't qualify for free prescriptions, the season ticket is certainly worth it. And while of course not everyone will know from the outset how many prescriptions they'll need, many are missing out on savings.

"To be fair, many pharmacists and GPs do tell patients they can save using this scheme, but it's clear there's still a lack of awareness. The NHS should do whatever it can to publicise this scheme to patients who can use it to pay less."

'There are still people who are unaware of the scheme'

Commenting on the figures, a spokesperson for the NHSBSA said: "In spite of NHS Business Services Authority widely promoting prescription prepayment certificates and more than two million certificates being issued during 2016/17, there are still people who are unaware of the scheme.

"We are committed to helping patients get help with health costs, primarily through making people aware of their eligibility for free prescriptions. If no exemption is available then a prescription prepayment certificate is the next best option and healthcare professionals and pharmacists are actively encouraged to recommend them to patients who might benefit."