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For decades I’ve paid for my prescriptions in advance for a year online which saves me money. This year, the website refused to sell me the required annual certificate which entitles me to do so – I am soon to turn 60 and will then qualify for free prescriptions – so I had to buy the next best thing which was for three months.

I planned to renew for another three months when it expired but, being unwell and unused to renewing after such a short time, I forgot but my prescriptions continued to arrive.

I remembered five months later and tried to buy a back-dated certificate, but the website refused to sell me one. I face an estimated £500-worth of penalty charges for ordering prescriptions without the requisite certificate at a time when ill health is keeping me off work.

I called NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) which confirmed that no back-dated certificates are allowed for 59- 60-year-olds unused to paying three monthly. I was told that my best hope was that the errors would go undetected, due to a less-than-perfect checking process at NHSBSA.

It would be justice if they allowed you to buy an annual certificate in your last year of liability. It would be justice if they allowed to you back-date if you forget to pay. It would be justice if they sent a reminder when your certificate is due to expire. SG, London

Fines, introduced to prevent prescription fraud, are five times the cost of a prescription and have caused hardship to hundreds of law-abiding patients. Many, like you, failed to realise that their prepaid certificate, or their entitlement to free prescriptions, had expired since no reminders are sent. Others have been charged in error because the dispensing pharmacist failed to note that they had paid.

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NHSBSA took over the administration of the fines from NHS trusts in 2014 and since then the number issued has doubled to over 1m in 2017. That year a third were overturned on appeal.

NHSBSA insists that 59-year-olds can buy 12-month prepaid certificates and is unsure why you were unable to do so. “We do send a reminder letter out to people approaching 60 in the next nine months to explain that it might be financially worthwhile for them to purchase three-month pre-payment certificates,” it says, pointing out that it is patients’ responsibility to check when their certificates expire. It can’t comment on your case, but advises you to call its helpline if you do receive a fine. However, its website warns that it does not usually accept appeals if an exemption certificate (and presumably also a prepaid one) had expired or where you acted with ‘“lack of care”.

Since the authority relies on random checks to identify unpaid charges, your best hope is, indeed, that your case is not picked up. While it’s right that deliberate fraud is penalised there is something very wrong with a system that fines often vulnerable people because of error or oversight.

If you need help email Anna Tims at or write to Your Problems, The Observer, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Include an address and phone number. Submission and publication are subject to our terms and conditions