IN THE past, Scotland has often been labelled the “sick man of Europe” because of our high rates of illness and low life expectancy compared with other countries.
There is some debate as to whether this tag still applies, following improvements in the nation’s health in more recent times, though the statistics still seem to suggest we have some way to go to catch up with the best performers.
But there is no doubt that when it comes to our health and social care system, we have one of the more generous ones – in the United Kingdom at least.
People south of the Border look with envy to our provision of free prescriptions and free personal care for the elderly. “How can they possibly afford it?” they ponder.
This week, figures revealed that the cost of providing free personal care to elderly people in their homes now stands at almost £350 million a year – up more than 160 per cent since the policy began in 2002.
In 2012-13, 47,680 people benefited from free personal care, receiving an average of 8.4 hours of care each week for services such as help with washing and dressing.
The increase in the numbers receiving care and the costs involved has been linked to more elderly people being cared for at home and kept out of hospital.
This, in turn, reduces the costs associated with people being cared for in hospital, with the hopes the costs will balance out in the end.
But with people living longer – even within the confines of Europe’s “sick man” – is free personal care a policy that can be maintained in the future?
Many, while welcoming the benefits the policy brings, have questioned whether the “demographic timebomb” will blow up in our faces, with costs spiralling out of control.
The difficulty is that once something is made free, persuading people to pay for it again is always going to be difficult.
While in the past many people never gave a second thought to coughing up a few pounds for a prescription two or three times a year, ask them whether they’d like to do that now and the response would be very different.
It is even more difficult when it comes to personal care, where those benefiting from the service are often some of the most vulnerable and deprived members of society.
When making popular policy decisions, costs are always at the forefront of politicians’ minds.
But it is the future costs that also need more careful consideration so such policies can continue to remain popular.