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Scrapping gluten-free food prescriptions for coeliac patients ‘will cost NHS more in the long term’, charity warns

PUBLISHED: 15:28 31 July 2017

Doctor writing prescription

Doctor writing prescription

© Getty Images

West Kent Clinical Commissioning Group said the decision was necessary given its financial position

A decision to stop offering coeliac patients routine prescriptions for gluten-free products from September will “cost the NHS more in the long term”, a charity has warned.

Health chiefs in west Kent made the controversial decision at a governing body meeting last week in a bid to save more than £100,000 from its annual budget.

The clinical commissioning group (CCG), which plans and buys healthcare for patients in Maidstone, Malling, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, decided to continue NHS funding for gluten-free products, but only for people with Phenylketonuria (PKU) who need specific low protein food.

The service first began when gluten-free foods were not as readily available as they are today, and the CCG has been looking across the board to make cuts with a limited budget and increasing demand for services.

However, the decision has been criticised by some organisations, including health charity, Coeliac UK.

A spokesperson said: “We understand the importance of having access to gluten free food on prescription, particularly for people on low incomes or those only able to shop in small convenience stores that do not stock staple gluten free foods.

“We are concerned that the measures taken by the CCG to save money will affect people’s ability to stick to the gluten free diet and that this in turn will result in ongoing symptoms and also increase the likelihood of complications of coeliac disease.

“As well as the individual suffering this may cause, it will also cost the NHS more in the long term.”

The CCG carried out a consultation with the public over the winter about its proposal to stop funding gluten-free products on prescription.

Of 505 people - patients, carers and the public - who responded to the online survey, 59 per cent had coeliac disease or were carers for someone with coeliac disease.

Overall, 55 per cent of those who responded agreed at least in part with the CCG’s proposal to stop the routine provision of gluten-free food on prescription.

Specifically, 29 per cent agreed routine prescriptions should be stopped completely, 26 per cent thought there should be some exemptions, while 46 per cent thought routine prescribing should continue.

An assessment carried out by the CCG showed that the top users of NHS prescriptions for gluten-free foods are the ten per cent most affluent members of the population with coeliac disease, while the ten per cent least affluent get the fewest prescriptions.

About one per cent of the population of the UK has coeliac disease, which works out at about 4,600 people in west Kent.

Of the total number with coeliac disease, it is estimated that about a quarter have a clinical diagnosis.

This indicates that about 1,150 people may currently be eligible for gluten-free food on prescription in west Kent.

The gluten-free items currently available on prescription in west Kent are fresh and long-life bread, flour mix, plain savoury crackers, pasta and pure oats breakfast cereal.

Between January 2016 and December 2016, 10,026 gluten-free prescription items were prescribed by the 61 GP practices in west Kent at a total cost of £137,343.

However, Steve Inett of Healthwatch Kent, an independent champion for people who use health and social care services, felt the group hadn’t done enough during the consultation period.

He said: “We appreciate that NHS organisations are having to take difficult, and at times unpopular, decisions about services as the NHS strives to continue to be able to provide healthcare for the large majority of our population.

“The role of Healthwatch Kent is to ensure people are truly involved and informed about changes to services and that the correct, legal process is followed when these decisions are being made. “Healthwatch Kent has given clear advice to West Kent Clinical Commissioning Group that on this occasion, we don’t feel coeliac patients were properly engaged prior to the formal public consultation.”

Dr Bob Bowes, chair of the CCG, said: “I know this will be disappointing to many people with coeliac disease in west Kent and I would like to assure them that ending prescribing of gluten-free food is not a decision we took lightly.

“When making our decision, we considered whether the money spent on gluten-free prescriptions can be spent on other services without having a significant impact on the health of those affected, and took into account people’s views gathered through consultation.

“We were also very aware that it is our statutory duty to do the best we can for the whole of our population with the money we have available.

“We decided that, given our financial position, we can no longer continue routinely to fund gluten-free products on prescription for people with coeliac disease and other gluten-sensitive illnesses.”

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