Casualties to be charged for drugs at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire's A&E department
THOUSANDS of casualties at a hospital A&E are being forced to pay prescription charges for the first time.
Patients visiting the University Hospital of North Staffordshire's (UHNS) emergency department are being charged a fee of £7.65 for each drug they need.
Now health campaigners have criticised the charges as breaching the NHS founding principle that care is free at the point of delivery. And they are to seek a ruling from the ombudsman on whether the move is lawful.
Leaders of pressure group North Staffordshire Healthwatch fear the move could lead to other charges creeping in and create angry scenes as patients are handed invoices.
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Co-ordinator Ian Syme said: "The hospital has never charged for this since the creation of the NHS in 1948 and we challenge them show us where in the NHS constitution it is now allowed to do so.
"I can see people refusing to pay and taunting the hospital to take them to court for the money.
"Aside from the principle at stake, the bureaucracy it will need to administer could cost more than it will bring in."
The new charges, which have been introduced within the last month, cover cases where people are not admitted to a bed and are given drugs by doctors to take home.
They are expected to affect around 17,000 patients with minor injuries attending A&E every year.
Similar fees are already in place at Burslem's Haywood Hospital and Leek Moorlands Hospital.
But at UHNS they have been brought in just months after chief executive Julia Bridgewater, pictured above, said the hospital had no plans to charge for drugs.
Stoke-on-Trent South MP Rob Flello, who is to raise the issue with hospital managers, said: "We need to know if it is just to bring it into line with the rest of North Staffordshire. Or is it another way for the Government to take money from people?"
The hundreds of thousands of pounds collected by forcing patients to pay prescription charges will not go to UHNS directly, but will be passed on to central Government.
However local health managers say that if they do not levy the charges, they will face reductions in their budgets.
A joint statement from the UHNS and the area's primary care trusts said: "More than three-quarters of patients don't pay for their prescriptions.
"But the legislation changed some years ago to allow A&E departments to charge, except for immediately necessary drugs for serious emergencies.
"The money collected by the hospital is paid back centrally.
"However hospitals failing to collect charges still have to pay it back. This means that the hospital would have less money available for other services."
Since the Haywood and Leek brought in the fees, record numbers of people have flooded into A&E, leading to it being fined more than £2 million for missing Government treatment time targets.
Around 70,000 of the hospital's 100,000 A&E patients a year are not admitted to a bed and will therefore face charges.