Pharmacists have criticised government plans that see the profession policing free prescription entitlement.

The Department of Health (DH) and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will introduce regulations for a new IT system to enable pharmacists to see who is entitled to free prescriptions and who is not.

The IT system is due to be introduced in 2018 and while the details are not completely finalised yet, The Pharmacist has been told it will be easy to use and will show Yes or No to free prescription entitlement when a patient’s details are entered into it.

The new system is hoped to save the NHS around £200m - £150m through tackling prescription fraud and an additional £50m on dental fraud.

Health Minister, Dr Dan Poulter, said: “We have a duty to ensure every available penny of NHS cash is available for frontline patient care. This abuse of the NHS must stop.

“Claiming a free prescription you are not entitled to takes money away from other frontline patient services and reduces the amount of money available to spend on patient care.”

Under current rules, NHS Business Services Authority undertakes checks to find out whether patients are entitled to free prescriptions or not, but this only takes place once the prescription has been issued.

However, the new IT system will mean patients found to be fraudulently claiming free prescriptions will face penalties of up to £150, with persistent offenders risking being taken to court and a maximum fine of £2,500 as well as a criminal record.

The English branch of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has criticised the proposed plans. It’s chair said the new restrictions will interfere with putting the needs of vulnerable people first and label people who have forgotten to renew their medical exemption certificates as “fraudsters” for a minor mistake.

David Branford said: “This move to make pharmacists police the government’s unfair charging system is totally unacceptable to us.

“We believe this will disrupt and distort the relationship between pharmacist and patient, affecting the trust that currently exists and instead creating a culture of fear and uncertainty.”

Managing director of Numark Pharmacy, John D’Arcy, also noted concern over the potential damage to the pharmacist/patient relationship caused by the government move.

He said: “It is absolutely right steps should be taken to clamp down on fraudsters who cheat the NHS of much needed resources and so deny patients the care they need.

“However, we are concerned about an increase in pharmacists’ involvement in exemption checking.  The relationship between a pharmacist and patient is complex and relies in large part on trust.  

“Making pharmacists exemption policemen may undermine the relationship that pharmacists have with their patients, undermining patient care.”

Almost 90% of prescriptions in England are dispensed free of charge, however, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do not have a charge for prescriptions at all.