The Government will work with pharmaceutical contractors to guard against risks of fraud relating to inappropriate claims and reimbursements and ‘contractual fraud’ to help meet a savings target of £500 million for the NHS between now and 2026.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has launched a counter fraud strategy that identifies primary care - including pharmacy, general practice and dentistry - as one of three key risk areas it will focus on in the next three years. The £500m savings will come from prevention and detection of fraud as well as the recovery of funds, it said.

It is estimated that the NHS in England is vulnerable to £1.198 billion of fraud, bribery and corruption each year.

Data from the latest NHS Counter Fraud Authority (NHSCFA) Strategic Intelligence Assessment report, which has been used to develop the new counter-fraud strategy, shows that between 2021 and 2022 the financial amount vulnerable to community pharmaceutical contractor fraud was estimated at £122 million – out of an expenditure of £12.2 billion.

During 2021/22, there were 155 allegations of community pharmaceutical contractor fraud made to the NHSCFA.

In the same period, the estimated financial vulnerability to fraud for GPs was £101 million and for dental contractors was £61 million.

A spokesperson for the DHSC said a key part of the 2023-2026 counter-fraud strategy is ‘ensuring that, wherever possible, fraud is prevented from occurring in the first place by working with stakeholders to identify any weaknesses in the system that can be closed’.

Its policy paper says it will take a data-driven approach and make counter-fraud a ‘part of day-to-day activity’. One objective will be to ensure staff ‘understand fraud and how it could impact their work, and their roles and responsibilities to prevent it’ as well as make sure they feel confident to report suspected fraud early.

It also says it will ‘continue to use a range of options to deal with those who commit fraud, allowing proportionate and cost-effective action to be taken’.

Lord Markham, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the DHSC, said: ‘Every pound lost to fraudsters is a pound lost from patient care.’

He added: ‘The methods and means of attack from fraudsters are constantly changing and I am determined that we not only keep pace but anticipate their actions. No level of fraud is acceptable, and DHSC and its partners will do even more in response to this threat, with an ambitious new three-year strategy target of £500 million.’

The other two areas the government will focus on as part of its drive against fraud are procurement and commissioning and prevention policies.

A version of this article was first published on our sister title Management in Practice

What could fraud in community pharmacy look like?

The NHSCFA Strategic Intelligence Assessment 2022 report said that pharmaceutical contractor fraud involves the falsification or exaggeration of services, as well as collusion.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when temporary suspensions were introduced for patient signatures on prescriptions and for the consent required from patients for electronic repeat dispensing, 'it is likely that some pharmacists exaggerated their activities to receive higher monthly payments, including claims for the uncollected prescriptions of university students or over prescribing in bulk for care homes,' the report said.

It also said that Covid-19 provided an opportunity to allow some pharmacists to claim for ‘ghost patients’ within the vaccination programme and to intentionally split transactions when supplying NHS Lateral Flow Device home testing kits.

Additionally, during the height of the pandemic, 'it is likely that a number of pharmacists could have used volunteers to deliver prescriptions to shielding patients or falsified deliveries entirely, but still claimed reimbursement for an outsourced delivery,' the report claimed.

Meanwhile, 'the intelligence suggests a small minority of pharmacists may have offset revenue shortfalls by claiming reimbursement for Covid-19 related upgrades which were not undertaken,' the report said. 'Reports suggest that some pharmacists could have delayed the submission of claims for drugs dispensed to receive a higher reimbursement, enabled by the monthly price fluctuation being advertised in advance.'

Finally, the report said that 'there is a realistic probability that pharmacists and manufacturers will potentially collude to mutually increase profits. Reports suggest that some manufacturers could have charged an excessive amount for a pharmaceutical special item and then split the profit. Others are believed to have made "kickback" payments to pharmacists in exchange for ordering products from them above alternative manufacturers.'

In 2019, the co-director of a family pharmacy chain in south Wales was sentenced to over a year’s jail time for overcharging the NHS by over £76,000 for medicines, after submitting fraudulent claims for over 1,500 prescriptions.