Officials at the Department of Health said yesterday that most of the fraud - which costs the NHS around pounds 100m a year - was caused by people falsely claiming they qualified for free medicines because they were poor and receiving income support, or other welfare benefits.
Ministers found the system was "shot full of holes" and depended almost entirely on the honesty of patients, doctors and pharmacists. An efficiency scrutiny unit found blatant breaches, including one case of a man who ticked the box to obtain a free prescription on the ground that he was pregnant. In future, those claiming to be poor will have to show evidence such as a benefit certificate. If they still claim they are entitled to free prescriptions, but fail to provide evidence, they will still get their prescriptions free, but their forms will be marked for a possible check-up later.
The Prescription Pricing Authority fraud investigation unit will cross- check the unsubstantiated claims with benefit payments on the social security computer files. Those found to be claiming fraudulently will receive a penalty payment demand. Persistent offenders could be taken to court.