Hundreds of thousands of pounds are owed to Yorkshire and the Humber hospitals in unpaid bills for providing treatment to non-EU nationals in the last year.
The figure, obtained through a series of requests under the Freedom of Information Act by The Yorkshire Post, showed the total debt was £752,643 in the financial year 2015-2016 – with Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust chasing the largest sums.
The statistics are revealed the same week senior Department of Health civil servant Chris Wormald said the Government was considering asking patients to produce a passport to prove they were entitled to care.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “The NHS is a national – not an international – health service and we are determined to stamp out abuse of the system to ensure it remains free at the point of need in this country.
“We consulted earlier this year on extending the charging of migrants and visitors using the NHS. We will set out further steps in due course to ensure we deliver on our objective to recover up to £500m a year by the middle of this Parliament.”
The plan were backed by Conservative MPs in Yorkshire.
Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew said: “The NHS provides vital services free at the point of use, based upon need and not ability to pay. But, it is right that elective treatments should only be for those who are entitled to use our NHS. I support the Government’s move to prevent health tourism, which has an impact on patients, staff and ultimately on the UK taxpayer.”
But a spokesman for Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which had the third highest figure in the region, denied the city’s hospitals had fallen victim to health tourism.
He said: “Our policy is always to go to every length to recover costs but inevitably this can take some time as it is often not practical to do so when people are discharged from hospital.
“This particularly applies when a patient has been subject to complex treatments and tests, and in many cases the final bill would be settled by the foreign patient’s insurers. There is therefore a significant time-lag before many bills are settled.
“There is no evidence to suggest that hospitals in Leeds are victims of so-called ‘health tourism’ but our staff are alert for this phenomenon.
“The vast majority of foreign patients who come to us have been unexpectedly taken ill or have had an accident that requires urgent treatment.”
The statement was echoed by Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s director of finance Neil Priestley, who said the costs typically follow accidents or sudden illness.
He said: “Almost always 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, hence our unpaid amount is higher. 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.”
Pam Clipson, director of strategy and planning at Northern Lincolnshire and Goole said: “The trust has a dedicated coordinator in post, who is responsible for the overall processes in place in relation to overseas visitors and who is a point of contact within the trust for staff. They also regularly liaise with official bodies and agencies as required.”