Friday, December 4, 1998 Published at 17:14 GMT
Crackdown on prescription cheats
People will soon have to prove they are exempt from prescription charges
A big campaign to crack down on prescription fraud is being launched in the New Year.
The government says fraud costs the NHS £100m a year - a third of what it earns through prescription charges.
The new campaign will involve a big increase in paperwork for chemists.
They will have to check people's entitlements to exemptions, such as proof of benefit entitlement or age.
Only 20% of the population has to pay full prescription charges. Free prescriptions cost the NHS some £1.3bn a year.
Exemptions are available for people over 60, under 16, 16- to 18-year-olds in full-time education, people on a range of benefits, pregnant women and people with chronic health problems, such as epilepsy.
The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) has negotiated an extra £12.25m from the government to cover the additional work involved in policing prescription exemptions.
Godfrey Horridge, financial executive of the PSNC, said the government had promised a nationwide publicity campaign in the New Year to let people know about the change.
"We do not want this to disrupt the pharmacist/patient relationship and undermine trust," he said.
"The aim is to change the culture to make people a little more honest about this," he added.
Currently, patients only have to tick a box on an exemption form and sign it in order to qualify for free prescriptions.
The government says the new checks will be introduced next April.
Health minister Alan Milburn said: "The government has no patience with people who cheat on prescription charges and so deprive others of the NHS care they need.
"By asking pharmacists to carry out very simple checks, we will help cut the cost of fraud."
Prescription charges were first introduced by the Conservatives in 1952 to cover the rising cost of prescribed drugs.
In 1964, Labour abolished charges, but four years later re-introduced them with exemptions for certain categories of people.
Since then, costs have been rising steadily, but an increasing number of drugs are now available over the counter.