Penalty charge notice system not fit for purpose

MPs have condemned the ‘shockingly complacent’ response to the 1.7 million fines being wrongly issued to patients in England after visiting the doctor or dentist.

The Public Accounts Committee has claimed that the penalty fine system is ‘not fit for purpose’, with presumption of guilt currently leading to too many incorrect penalty notices, particularly affecting the vulnerable.

Penalty charge notices are supposed to discourage people from claiming free prescriptions or dental treatment when they are not entitled to do so. However, MPs say that the current process is a ‘heavy-handed rush to judgement’ which penalises those who fail to navigate the overly-complex exemption criteria and neglects clear evidence of abuse by repeat offenders.

Furthermore, the committee’s report says that the NHS Business Services Authority has not attempted to identify those who are entitled to an exemption but pay for treatment and the department recognises that some people may not seek treatment because they are worried about getting a PCN.

The Department of Health and Social Care have been told that they should set out how it will make exemptions more readily intelligible for all claimants, based on evidence of how users complete applications and should work more closely with the Department for Work & Pensions to improve the information provided to benefit claimants about whether they are entitled to free prescriptions.

Furthermore, all involved should write to the committee to establish when it plans to introduce the additional checking stage in the PCN process and the timeline for doing so, as well as a breakdown of people not seeking the treatment they need for fear of incurring fines, patients not claiming the exemption to which they are entitled and admissions to hospital as a result.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “Patients find it very confusing to understand whether or not they can claim free prescriptions or dental treatment because of a convoluted system that causes patients, in some cases, distress. A presumption of guilt means penalty charge notices are issued too readily, particularly where vulnerable people are concerned. Yet where there is clear evidence that people are persistently committing fraud by making false claims, there has been a failure to take effective action.

“The committee fully support efforts to deter fraud and pursue those who claim exemptions to which they are not entitled to but the current penalty notice system is cumbersome, inefficient and not fit for purpose. The department should substantially overhaul the system, so that those who are rightfully entitled to free prescriptions and dental treatment get the exemption they deserve.”

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