The news that the National Audit Office is to launch an investigation into the use of penalty charge notices (PCN) in healthcare will bring a sigh of relief to the families of the hundreds of thousands of people struggling with their finances after being hit with a PCN.
These £100 fines are issued to people who “misclaim” free NHS dental care after failing to understand the confusing system of declarations. They are also levied at people who wrongly claim a free NHS prescription after their medical exemption certificate has expired.
The numbers of PCNs issued to people in England after obtaining free NHS dental care has risen more than tenfold over the last five years, up from 33,887 in 2012/13 to 427,238 in 2017/18. Of those people that go on to contest a fine, 90% win, according to the British Medical Association. Although the Department of Health and Social Care disputes this figure.
In terms of free NHS prescriptions, 1,052,430 PCNs were issued in England in 2017, more than double the 494,129 fines issued during 2016. However, 342,882 fines were cancelled when it became apparent that the patient was entitled to the free prescription.
What the figures don’t show, however, are the numbers of people who go on to pay the fine, even though they are entitled to either the free NHS prescription or dental care.
Neither do they show just how many people are failing to fill out a free NHS prescription and going without vital medication over fears that they too could be hit with a £100 fine that they cannot afford to pay, and which rises by £50 if they miss the fine’s deadline.
What the data does reveal is that the PCN system is dysfunctional and in need of a radical overhaul. Two million fewer people are now accessing the NHS dental care that they are entitled to claim free of charge. Some of these patients are now having their teeth extracted in hospital, at a huge cost to the NHS. In addition, Victorian era diseases such as tuberculosis, inflammatory arthritis, scarlet fever, whooping cough and others are making a disturbing comeback.
The government spends millions each year pursuing its aggressive fining policy, inflicting misery on some of the most vulnerable people in society in the process. Clearly, that money would be better spent ensuring that everyone has easy access to high quality medicine and healthcare.