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BACKGROUND Trained for the frontline in battle against corruption; A team of fraud investigators is on the trail of NHS cheats in the West Midlands, reports Health Correspondent Jenny Hudson.

Like in any organisation, there are opportunities for illegal gain and unscrupulous employees prepared to exploit them.

But within the NHS - the largest single employer in Europe - the scope for fraud is broad and extremely costly.

Known fraud currently under investigation nationally is valued at pounds 23 million.

Up until two years ago, health authorities and hospital trusts had to rely on their own internal audits to uncover corruption.

When necessary, health officials would inform the police, but over-stretched fraud departments were not always able to act on every piece of information.

In 1998, the Directorate of Counter Fraud Services was set up to mastermind a national strategy to beat crime in the NHS.

Eight regional teams - the Counter Fraud Operational Service - were established across the country as frontline investigation teams.

And to ensure there is no hiding place for fraudsters, every single health authority and hospital trust in the country has a specially trained employee responsible for tackling corruption.

More than 500 staff - dubbed the 'untouchables' - have been trained at the Department of Health's anti-fraud centre of excellence in Reading.

In some cases, they combine their jobs with their anti-fraud work. In large organisations like Birmingham Health Authority, the position is a full-time post.

Most of those responsible for rooting out corruption have a background in finance.

When an employee is under investigation for fraud, a suspension is not always automatic.

Mr Nick Dann, manager of the West Midlands Counter Fraud Operational Service, said: 'It depends on each case. If there was any risk to patients, they would be immediately suspended.

'But sometimes it is necessary to keep them in employment to identify how the fraud is being perpetrated.

'Investigators from the directorate are trained in covert surveillance which may be necessary in some cases.

'For example, if we suspect a doctor is making false claims for night visits, we would be able to check the claims are valid and he is not sitting at home.

'Health authorities and trusts must inform us when they have a proven fraud. But we are also here to advise them if they have any concerns or suspicions.

'In the past, the police have been unable to take on some cases because they just don't have the manpower to cover them.

'Now, we are able to act as the middle man. We only bring in the police once we can say, 'Here is the evidence and here is the guy who needs arresting.'

'We carry out prosecutions ourselves, using our own solicitors rather than the Crown Prosecution Service, which again speeds up the whole process.

'The most effective deterrent to a potential fraudster is the fear of getting caught.'

We want to ensure that fraud is identified and have an effective means of dealing with it.'
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Author:Hudson, Jenny
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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