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Pharmacies to digitally check if patients can get free prescriptions

Some pharmacies will check whether patients are exempt from paying for a prescription before their medication is dispensed, under a new pilot to be trialled next year.

The trial was announced by Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock as part of a plan to halve prescription fraud, which currently costs the NHS £256 million a year. If it is successful, it will be rolled out across NHS England.

NHS prescriptions are already free to all in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 

In the interim, the NHS has a new tool to check if you're entitled to free prescriptions.

Who is entitled to free prescriptions?

In England, you may be eligible for free prescriptions if you meet certain set criteria – for example, if you:

  • Get certain benefits, including income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance.
  • Have a valid maternity exemption certificate.
  • Have a valid medical exemption certificate.
  • Have a valid war pension exemption certificate.
  • Have an HC2 certificate (NHS Low Income Scheme).
  • Are over 60.
  • Are under 16 (or 16-18 and in full-time education).

At the moment, when you go to a pharmacy in England, if you're eligible for free prescriptions you'll tick a box on your prescription form confirming this.

But if you wrongly tick the box, you could be asked to pay a fine of up to £100, and in extreme cases face prosecution.

How will the trial work?

Under the system to be trialled next year, pharmacies will be able to download digital records which pinpoint if a customer is entitled to free prescriptions, while the customer waits.

It would be able to check if you already have a medical exemption certificate, for example, but it would not be able to tell you you're eligible for the certificate.

It's not yet clear if the trial will be done within certain areas, or if pharmacies will be able to volunteer to take part. 

There will also be a new drive to spot pharmacists and dentists who claim payments for services they have not carried out, something which can result in large-scale scams.

The NHS Counter Fraud Authority will partner with fraud prevention service Cifas as part of the crackdown.

What does the Government say?

Mr Hancock said: "The message is clear: the NHS is no longer an easy target and if you try to steal from it you will face the consequences.

"Those who abuse the NHS and choose to line their own pockets with money that should be spent on patients and frontline care will no longer have anywhere to hide.

"The new technology and analysis, combined with intel and experience of counter-fraud specialists will form the starting point of this new fight against NHS fraudsters."

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