As the issue of so-called ‘health tourism’ and NHS funding play an increasingly prominent role in debate in the general election race, an investigation from The Yorkshire Post has revealed the scale of the problem facing the region’s biggest trusts.
In Leeds, the debt from those who have left the country without paying for treatment stands at £964,699 and figures suggest the problem is growing. NHS hospitals in Sheffield, meanwhile, are £851,785 in the red from visitors not entitled to free treatment, and the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust is still chasing payment from 75 patients for £84,732 worth of healthcare provided since 2012.
While the majority of cases are emergency admissions or tourists requiring immediate care, nationally there has been a rise in those who travel to Britain specifically for treatments not available in their own countries, prompting calls for a crackdown on abuse of the system.
“The British Medical Association acknowledges the need to reduce the level of unpaid debts for NHS treatment, particularly in light of the current financial crisis facing our healthcare system,” council chairman Dr Mark Porter told The Yorkshire Post.
“But we must also stress the importance of protecting vulnerable patients in need of care.”
The NHS has a particularly poor record when it comes to recouping cash from those who leave the country without paying and never give a penny towards their treatment. In 2013, a study found that for every £100 the NHS spent on caring for health tourists in one year, only £23 was paid back.
But trusts in the region have told The Yorkshire Post insist they are doing all they can do chase up unpaid bills.
Neil Priestley, director of finance at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, said: “We have seen a sustained reduction in the level of debt incurred over recent years due to increased measures put in place.
“Often this is an emergency which we are obliged to treat. As we are a specialist centre and trauma centre we see a higher number of overseas patients than many other hospitals. We do everything we can to ensure we receive payment for any care provided and we have a stringent debt recovery approach which is why we have not been prepared to write off these debts and will continue to.”
A spokesman for Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust said today: “The trust takes a rigorous approach to collection of debt incurred by overseas visitors, which can include using a third party debt collection agency and registration of the debt with the UK Border Agency, which may affect the patient’s ability to travel within or to the UK or gain visas in the future.”