NHS issued 1.7m incorrect fines for claiming free prescriptions

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
The NHS says that it lost around £212m in 2017-18 from people who incorrectly claimed exemptions. Photo: Getty

The National Health Service has issued 1.7million incorrect fines to people for claiming for free prescriptions or dental work since 2014, according to a new report.

Around 30% of all penalty charge notices — or around £188m worth — were subsequently withdrawn because the people who made the claims were found to have valid exemptions, the National Audit Office (NAO) said on Tuesday.

“It is not a good sign that so many penalty charge notices are successfully challenged,” said Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO.

He said, however, that it was reasonable for the NHS to seek to recoup funds from people who fraudulently or mistakenly claimed to have exemptions from the charges.

“This is not a system that is working as it should,” said Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee of the House of Commons.

“The NHS must take urgent steps if it is to avoid causing unnecessary distress to patients, tripped up by an overly complex system, who end up facing large penalty charges.”

The NHS estimates that it lost around £212m in 2017-18 from people who incorrectly claimed exemptions.

Around 89% of the 1.1 billion prescription items dispensed by the NHS are claimed as exempt from charges, while around half of the 39 million courses of dental treatment are.

The number of checks on the validity of prescriptions has surged from 750,000 in 2014-15 to 24 million in 2018-19, the NAO said.

But in 2014-15, about a quarter of checks resulted in a fine, compared with just one 5% in 2018-19.

The Business Services Authority division of the NHS is responsible for issuing penalty charge notices to people who have either fraudulently or mistakenly claimed free prescriptions or dental treatment.

Last year, it cost the division £11.2m to manage the penalty charge notices process, or around 31 pence for every £1 recovered.