Hospitals count cost as foreign patients fail to pay

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FOREIGN patients owe at least £1.2m for treatment at hospitals across the region, analysis by the Yorkshire Post reveals.

More than £700,000 alone is outstanding at Sheffield’s hospitals from hundreds of patients treated in the two years to March last year, while another £260,000 is owed to hospitals in Bradford.

And a separate survey today by the GP magazine Pulse claims £40m could be owed in England to hospitals by foreign patients.

Figures provided to the Yorkshire Post show hospitals in Sheffield treated more than 600 patients from 74 countries from 2009-11 charging them £1.5m.

Nearly £300,000 was owed from 2009-10 when 288 patients were treated and a further £420,000 from the following year when 336 were seen. The largest debt was £52,000 for a baby’s neonatal cot.

Hospitals in Bradford treated 245 patients from abroad over the two years, providing treatment worth £325,000, but collected only 21 per cent of the amount owed, with debts remaining of £260,000.

In contrast, Harrogate’s hospital treated a similar number of patients, carrying out work worth £85,000, but was owed fewer than £6,000.

Figures show the Doncaster and Bassetlaw trust treated only 13 foreign patients but collected less than £8,000 of the £48,000 owed.

The Northern Lincolnshire and Goole trust treated 161 patients and collected nearly £50,000 of the £81,000 owed. Rates increased after it appointed a dedicated officer to chase invoices.

Nothing was owed to Barnsley’s hospital which treated only 20 foreign patients during the period.

In total, nearly 1,800 foreign patients were treated at 13 hospital trusts. The Airedale, Mid Yorkshire and South Tees trusts failed to provide figures.

Discrepancies appear to be due to different charging arrangements and confusion over which countries have reciprocal agreements with the UK to provide free treatment.

Pulse claimed the average unpaid debt for the provision of care to foreign nationals since April 2009 was £230,000 at 35 NHS trusts which responded to its survey, equating to £40m across the country.

Leeds GP Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, told Pulse hospitals needed to do more to put in place arrangements “that ensure people cannot exploit the system”.

“However, we need to be careful that we are not putting barriers in place that prevent people from getting access to healthcare,” he said. “It is too simplistic to call it health tourism. The reality is a lot more complex.”

St George’s Healthcare Trust in south London had the largest outstanding debts totalling £2m from £3.55m invoiced to foreign nationals for treatment.

Barnet and Chase Farm in north London had £488,000 outstanding from invoices worth £934,000. The Royal Wolverhampton Hospitals Trust collected a quarter of the £419,000 owed to it, the figures showed.

St George’s said: “A high percentage of our patients require life-saving trauma, neuroscience, cardiovascular or paediatric care. We’re working hard to improve the way we record overseas patients and the debt recovery rate.”

Foreign nationals living in the UK are entitled to free NHS treatment, but visitors are expected to have insurance or the bill is sent to their country of origin.

Health Minister Simon Burns said: “The NHS has a duty to anyone whose life or long-term health is at immediate risk but it is not there to serve the health needs of the globe.

“There are comprehensive rules and procedures to charge visitors for hospital treatment but we know that the system needs to be improved. That is why we are currently reviewing those arrangements to prevent inappropriate free access to the NHS and provide a fairer, more balanced system.

“Hospitals have a legal duty to recover any charges made to overseas patients. The Government has also recently amended the immigration rules so that anyone with an unpaid debt to the NHS of £1,000 or more can be refused a new visa.”