New tough line on prescription fraud

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Fines are to be imposed to tackle fiddles on prescriptions by patients which are costing the NHS an estimated pounds 115m a year. Colin Brown says health minister Alan Milburn will today announce a crackdown on prescription fraud.

A crackdown on prescription fraud by patients, pharmacists and doctors is to be announced today by Alan Milburn, the health minister, following an efficiency scrutiny in Whitehall which warned that fraud could be costing the NHS up to pounds 115m a year in lost revenue from prescription charges.

The exact extent of the fraud, however, was difficult to assess.

It is expected that the minister will give the go-ahead to plans raised when the report was published last year to for a new criminal offence of evading payment of the prescription charge and a fixed penalty for non-payment.

Measures are being taken for the first time to stop theft of prescription forms, and counterfeiting. There could be a reward scheme for pharmacies which detect stolen or counterfeited prescriptions.

Mr Milburn said when the report was published that the findings were "quite frankly staggering". He said if the NHS had been able to spend the money lost through fraud, it could have carried out an extra 14,500 heart bypass operations.

The report said that anything between pounds 70m and pounds 100m could be lost through patient evasion of the pounds 5.65 charge, including falsely claiming entitlement to free prescriptions. Exemptions include all children under 16, pregnant or nursing mothers, pensioners, medical conditions such as epilepsy, 16- 19-year-olds in full-time education, and all those on income support or family credit.

More money is believed to be lost through organised fraud by doctors and pharmacists. The Audit Commission in a separate report cited cases of doctors who sold drugs prescribed for non-existent patients, chemists who claimed for expensive branded drugs while supplying patients with cheaper unbranded types, and three opticians who claimed an extra pounds 25,000 for tinted lenses by adding it to the prescriptions after they had been signed by patients.

The NHS efficiency scrutiny team found no case where an individual had been charged with evading prescription charges, although it constituted a criminal offence. It said the deliberate evasion of charges should be defined explicitly and treated as a criminal offence to give "proper weight to the seriousness of deliberate fraud against the NHS." Other measures to stop patients claiming they were entitled to exemptions include a check on their birth date.

The team stressed that most GPs and pharmacists were honest but some were engaged in fraud, which had been going on since the time of Chaucer, the writer who chronicled medieval life. The report included this quotation from The Canterbury Tales: "The druggist to ensure his further self, split profits twixt our doctor and himself."