A pilot scheme enabling pharmacists to check patient entitlement to free NHS prescriptions has been delayed by three months, NHS Digital has confirmed.
Papers from a December 2018 meeting of NHS Digital’s board have revealed that the dispensing system supplier working on the Real-time Exemption Checking (RTEC) pilot was unable to deliver the service by the intended start-date of November 2018, as its work on the Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) was taking priority.
Instead, the papers said the pilot would start in February 2019.
RTEC will see prescription exemptions digitised to more easily allow pharmacists to confirm a patient’s eligibility for free NHS prescriptions, which the government says could halve the current amount of prescription fraud, which currently costs the NHS £256m each year.
Richard Ashcroft, director of digital medicines for NHS Digital, had previously said at the Clinical Pharmacy Congress held in April 2018 that a digital exemption pilot would start in August 2018.
However, the NHS Digital board papers said that its overarching plan to digitise pharmacy processes, which also includes electronic prescribing, runs the risk of missing its delivery targets due to the delay of the RTEC pilot.
The papers said: “The overall delivery confidence is amber/red due to the dispensing system supplier being unable to deliver a pilot for digital exemption checking by November 18, delaying the delivery to February 2019; this is due to their commitment to deliver the FMD, which has taken priority.”
The FMD will take effect from 9 February 2019 and will require pharmacy IT systems to connect to a medicines tracking database in Brussels to prevent counterfeit medicines from entering the supply chain.
The RTEC scheme is expected to be rolled out in phases, with the first comprising of maternity, medical, prepayment, low-income and tax exemptions. The second phase is expected to comprise of all Department for Work and Pensions exemptions, including Universal Credit.
According to the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), the RTEC scheme will “provide a more efficient digital process for pharmacy staff, reducing the time spent helping patients complete declarations, checking physical evidence of exemption status and sorting tokens for submission to [the NHS Business Service Authority”.
Sibby Buckle, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society-hosted Pharmacy Digital Forum, said the delay to the pilot was “a shame”, but added that she did not see it as “a deliberate delay against pharmacy”, as the government has other priorities such as FMD.
NHS Digital told The Pharmaceutical Journal: “The FMD is a legal requirement, hence why it is being prioritised at this time. We had hoped to start the digital exemption checking pilot scheme at the end of November , but the decision was made to defer this until February. This will avoid the busier months of the year where there is additional pressure on both patients and clinicians.
“We were only expecting to launch the first site at the end of November, with the remaining pilot sites to go live in the middle-to-end of January, so the impact of the delay is minimal.”
NHS Digital is expected to announce the IT system supplier for the pilot in early 2019.