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Revealed: Over a million could have saved on prescriptions with a 'season ticket' last year

Revealed: Over a million could have saved on prescriptions with a 'season ticket' last year

More than a million patients in England paid more than they needed to for NHS prescriptions last year and could have saved an average of over £35 by getting a 'prescription prepayment certificate', data obtained by MoneySavingExpert.com reveals.

Figures disclosed by the NHS under the Freedom of Information Act show that 1,042,008 people paid for at least 12 prescription items in the 2018/19 financial year. Each prescription item in England cost £8.80 over this period, meaning each patient shelled out a minimum of £105.60.

Yet an NHS prescription prepayment certificate (PPC), 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. And on average those who paid for 12 items or more actually bought about 16 items each – meaning the average saving with a certificate would have been over £35.

The number of people who could have saved with a PPC jumped by more than 200,000 compared with 2017/18, partly because the cost of individual prescription items has risen while the cost of the certificate has stayed the same. The number of certificates bought also rose year on year, and stood at more than 2,250,000 in 2018/19.

The prescription charge in England is now £9 per item, so anyone who knows they'll need to pay for at least 12 prescription items in a year will save money by getting an annual certificate. You can also get a three-month certificate for £29.10, so if you need four or more prescriptions over this period you'd be well served by buying one.

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 Freedom of Information request to the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) was initially turned down – it was only after we appealed against the decision that the figures were finally made public.

The data in the table below shows the number of people in England who would have saved money had they bought a PPC. (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 cost of an annual PPC has remained at £104 over the period mentioned below, yet the cost of prescriptions has gradually risen. In 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18, individual prescription items cost £8.20, then £8.40, then £8.60, so in these years anyone buying 13 or more items could have saved with an annual certificate. In 2018/19 though, the individual cost of prescriptions rose to £8.80, so anyone buying 12 or more could have saved.

Number of people who could have saved with a prepayment certificate

Financial year Patients who could have saved with an annual PPC Items bought
2015/16 745,764 13,394,446
2016/17 825,693 14,759,547
2017/18 828,257 14,678,616
2018/19 1,042,008 17,129,311

Check first if you even need to pay

If you'll save with a prepayment certificate, before buying one, always check if you qualify for an exemption and can avoid paying for a prescription entirely. You can check your eligibility on the NHSBSA website.

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 spending money on a prescription.

How to buy a prepay certificate

The quickest way to buy a PPC is to buy online, though you can also purchase it in many pharmacies or by calling the NHSBSA on 0300 330 1341. If buying online or over the phone, you can pay by card – if getting a 12-month PPC you also have the option of paying over 10 months by direct debit. 

If you become eligible for free prescriptions after buying a certificate, you may qualify for a full or partial refund. Time limits and conditions apply – check the NHSBSA website for full details.

If you buy a PPC online, you can get an instant digital certificate, but if you apply for a PPC via a different method and pay prescription charges while waiting for it to arrive, you can get a refund as long as:

  • You get an NHS refund form (FP57) when you pay, as you can't get one later
  • The PPC covers the date you paid for your prescription

'Far too many people are overpaying'

Steve Nowottny, news and features editor at MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "These figures show that an increasing number of patients are paying more than they need to for medicine and other items prescribed on the NHS. And while in some cases that will be due to unexpected illness, in other cases there will be people who do expect to need 12 or more prescriptions who are simply overpaying unnecessarily.

"While the NHS has worked hard to promote these 'season tickets' in recent months, it's clear there's still a real lack of awareness and it must do all it can to make sure all those that need the scheme can take advantage of it."

What does the NHSBSA say?

An NHSBSA spokesperson said: "If people don't qualify for free prescriptions, a prescription prepayment certificate offers great value for money. Our online application allows people to get instant cover through a digital certificate. For example, if someone knows that they are going to need a few prescriptions in a short space of time they can quickly purchase a three-month PPC and save money."