Patients falsely claiming free prescriptions are fleecing the NHS out of more than £200million a year, figures reveal.
Officials are concerned people are routinely walking into high street chemists pretending to be unemployed or suffering a long-term illness, just so they do not have to pay for medication.
Ministers are launching a crackdown on fraud by demanding pharmacists and NHS officials thoroughly check patients are entitled to free prescriptions.
In England, certain groups qualify, including the over-60s, children, new mothers, the unemployed and patients with certain medical conditions such as cancer. Everyone else pays a flat fee of £8.05 per item.
But the system is open to abuse because patients just tick a box on a form, and pharmacists take their word for it.
The Department of Health estimates 29.4million prescriptions were wrongly handed out for free last year at a cost of £237million. Under a scheme being launched by health minister Dr Daniel Poulter, the NHS’s Business Service Authority will this month begin looking back through records of free prescriptions.
They will check details held by the Department of Work and Pensions, and anyone found to be flouting the system will be fined £150. Persistent offenders will be taken to court and, if found guilty, fined £2,500.
The government is also introducing an electronic system to allow pharmacists to check immediately if patients are entitled to free prescriptions. It is expected to be available in all high street pharmacists by 2018.
Dr Poulter said: ‘This abuse of the NHS must stop. Claiming a free prescription when you are not entitled takes money away from frontline patient services.’
But senior medics said it was ‘totally unacceptable’ to expect pharmacists to police what is already a deeply flawed system. David Branford, of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, added it would disrupt the trust between pharmacists and patients.