Health authorities will be given access to GPs' accounts so they can investigate suspected fraud more easily, health minister Alan Milburn has announced.

The move is part of a package of measures designed to 'crack down' on prescription fraud, which is thought to cost the NHS at least pounds100m a year.

HAs will be able to refuse to contract with practitioners convicted of fraud and be given more help to investigate unusual prescribing patterns.

Prescription form security will be improved, pharmacists will be given incentives to report fraud, while patient charge evasion will be tackled through publicity campaigns and treated as a criminal offence.

NHS staff will be encouraged to report suspected fraud anonymously on a telephone hotline, 0800-068 6161, or via the Internet on www.fraud.exec.nhs.uk.

The moves were welcomed by NHS Confederation corporate affairs director Derek Day. 'Every penny lost in fraud is a penny lost to patient services,' he said.