HC Deb 27 January 1998 vol 305 cc136-7
6. Mr. Dobbin

What proposals he has for tackling prescription fraud in the NHS. [23418]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)

On 7 January, I announced a comprehensive programme of action, which includes plans to create a specific criminal offence of prescription charge evasion, improvements to prescription form security, the establishment of a hotline and internet websites for reporting suspected fraud and the forthcoming appointment of a fraud supremo to spearhead this initiative.

Mr. Dobbin

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the national health service loses £90 million to £100 million a year through prescription fraud and that had the NHS had access to those funds, it could have carried out something like 14,500 heart bypass operations, 68,900 cataract operations or 22,200 hip operations? To put that in a local context, my local health authority, Bury and Rochdale, did not spend anything like £100 million on setting up a health aid line for patients. Does he agree that those who are defrauding the system represent a tiny minority and that the vast majority of health workers, doctors and pharmacists are doing a sterling, honest and realistic job and deserve our help and support?

Mr. Milburn

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the scale of the problem which is cheating the national health service of some £100 million every year. He is also right to say that the overwhelming majority of patients and NHS professionals are decent, law-abiding citizens who are simply doing an honest job. That is why we are determined to bear down on the few rotten apples who are not. Their activities not only defraud the taxpayer, but rob patients of resources that they deserve.

Dr. Brand

Does the Minister agree that one of the ingredients for tackling fraud, especially prescription fraud in the NHS, is to have a thriving chain of community pharmacies? Will he give the House an assurance that his Department will consider a remuneration package for community pharmacists to replace the threatened abolition of retail price maintenance in respect of over-the-counter medicines?

Mr. Milburn

In addition to their role in dispensing medicines, community pharmacists have an important role to play—for example, in helping to crack down on prescription fraud. That is why we are entering negotiations with the pharmacy profession on introducing a new scheme whereby pharmacists are rewarded appropriately when they spot counterfeit or stolen prescription forms. We want to enhance their role in that and other respects.

Dr. Fox

I am sure that the Minister will agree that a simplified prescribing system would enable us all to crack down on prescription fraud. At the moment, those who benefit from free prescriptions in one area of medicine are able to do so in others. In other words, someone who requires one life-saving medicine can claim all prescriptions free, irrespective of his or her income. How much does that cost the national health service in a year?

Mr. Milburn

I do not have the figure, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman. The current system of prescription charge exemption is extremely complex and, in some cases, difficult to understand. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as part of the comprehensive spending review, we are considering how we can make the system easier to understand and simpler to administer. In addition, later this year, we shall be launching a major publicity campaign to try to get across the message to patients—who sometimes simply get it wrong—about who is exempt and who is not. In the meantime, the Government will not stand back idly and allow those who are defrauding the system to get away with it. They are cheating the system and robbing taxpayers and patients of money that should be going into patient care.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Would the introduction of a national identity card scheme help to root out fraud?

Mr. Milburn

Following the efficiency scrutiny report on prescription fraud, we accepted that patients who turn up and claim an exemption from the prescription charge should prove their entitlement to that exemption. That is important, and we hope that, through our discussions with the pharmacy profession, we shall be able to introduce those checks at the point of dispensing before too long.