AS THE issue of so-called ‘health tourism’ plays a prominent role in the race to the general election, an investigation from The Yorkshire Post lays bare the strain the problem puts on cash-strapped hospitals across the region.
Already this year, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust has spent £387,418 on treatments for private overseas patients - up by more than £16,000 on the total for the whole of the previous year - and pushing the total owed to almost £1million.
It is not just big cities which struggle to claw back the cost of treating non-entitled nationals, either. Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust is £23,953.00 in the red, while Harrogate and District NHS Foundation Trust has £3,551.91 in outstanding bills.
Data also shows how other trusts have been forced to write off tens of thousands of pounds of debt in the past four years, with York Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust abandoning hopes of recouping £34,944.
Trusts say the majority of patients are treated for emergencies and accidents while visiting the UK, yet ministers have acknowledged there are many who take advantage of the free care on offer in Britain’s hospitals.
NHS England policy states that no one can be refused emergency treatment care on cost grounds, but charges can be later pursued from those ineligible for free care, and medics’ hands are tied by ethical obligations set out in the Hippocratic oath.
The UK’s record on retrieving costs is poor in comparison to other countries.
Under an EU agreement, citizens can be treated free of charge in other countries as long as their government repays the cost.
But the most recent figures show that the UK claws back only £1 for every £15 we pay for Britons to be treated abroad, significantly lower than other member states.
The previous Government acknowledged the impact on NHS budgets and health secretary Jeremy Hunt has attempted to crack down on the problem.
“I am determined to wipe out abuse in the system,” he said.
“The NHS is a national treasure and we need to develop plans and make sure it is sustainable for years to come.”
This month saw Department for Health introduce new rules on eligibility for free NHS care, currently offered to those who are ‘ordinarily resident’ in Britain.
These will affect visitors and former UK residents differently, depending on where they now live.
Yet the impact of these measures is unlikely to impact on the bills run up by overseas visitors, as treatment in accident and emergency departments and at GP surgeries will remain free for all. The new guidelines are also subject to change depending on which party, or parties, gain power after May 7.
When commenting on the issue earlier this year, the Department of Health said: “We are absolutely committed to improving the way the NHS recovers costs from international visitors.”
The United Kingdom Independence Party has been one of the most vocal critics of so-called health tourism ahead in the general election race, supporting tougher measures which make it harder for patients to leave the country without paying up.
A spokesman for the party told The Yorkshire Post: “UKIP acknowledges the great impact health tourism is having on our NHS services up and down the country. We would insist migrants and visitors coming to Britain have approved medical insurance. Urgent medical treatment will still be given to those who need it, but non-urgent treatment would be charged. This ensures our NHS remains a national health service, not an international health service.”
BELOW IS a rundown of the amount owed to NHS trusts from overseas visitors not entitled to free treatment which responded to The Yorkshire Post’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act:
Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust - £964,699
York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust - £74,428.34
Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust - £851,785.91
Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust - £23,953.00
Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust - £84,732
Harrogate and District NHS Foundation Trust - £3,551.91