Tourists and temporary migrants not entitled to free healthcare in the UK have racked up hospital bills worth thousands of pounds that remain unpaid.
While some were seriously injured or poorly, with fractured bones or chest pain, others turned up with minor conditions such as migraines and ear infections, which could have been dealt with at a local pharmacy.
In the past five years, £53,653 worth of debt has been written off, while bills totalling just over £110,147 remain unpaid.
At the same time, bosses at Blackpool Victoria Hospital have been forced to make millions of pounds of savings in the face of government under-funding, and are this year fighting to break even. Its bank balance has dwindled, and is expected to plunge to just £200,000 by April.
Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP and Conservative minister Paul Maynard said it’s ‘right’ tourists should be treated in emergencies without ‘having to worry about costs’, but added: “I’m sure the hospital will want to review its policies on how it deals with overseas visitors.”
The most money billed last year was to a visitor from Nigeria, who spent £5,000 on a chemotherapy session and is yet to pay a penny back.
It’s impossible to estimate [the cost] with confidence
The migraine treatment, given to a South African, cost £769 and is also outstanding in full, while an Indian patient received attention for a cataract, which cost £1,549 and hasn’t been paid back.
Other visitors hailed from around the globe, including Cyprus (chest pain), Turkey (leg fracture), China (sickness), China (stomach pains), and Canada (a carbuncle – a skin infection – on his neck).
Some NHS services are free to all, including A&E, though it does not include emergency treatment if admitted; family planning services, not including abortions or infertility treatment; treatment for most infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted diseases (STIs); and treatment for domestic or sexual violence, though those who travel to the UK to purposefully seek such treatment are not eligible.
However, visitors from the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland should have a valid European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) issued by their home country, or face being charged for hospital treatment.
In Blackpool, they included people from Poland (fracture, sickness, and ear, nose and throat (ENT) treatment), Italy (neck injury), and Spain (out-patient appointment).
Those from outside the zone should have personal or travel insurance or face being charged 150 per cent of the standard NHS rate. Failure to pay ‘may have an effect on any future immigration application’ they make, and they ‘risk being turned down’, the NHS said.
‘Deliberate’ health tourism, the act of travelling to the UK specifically for treatment, is thought to cost between £110 million and £280 million, while ‘normal’ use of the NHS costs £1.8 billion, research commissioned by the Department for Health estimated recently.
However, the department’s report said: “The estimates for health tourism, as for any unlawful activity, are impossible to estimate with confidence and are a structured judgement.”
Mr Maynard added: “While we might all want to ensure the money is returned to the NHS, I’m sure the hospital will need to take into account what it will cost to pursue the debts in the first place.”
A spokesman for Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: “The Department of Health has placed a legal responsibility on every NHS Trust to identify all overseas visitors and the Trust has introduced a number of developments to fulfil this requirement.
“An Overseas Visitors Team has been established to look at all cases proactively and actively pursue any debt.
“The team also works hard to increase awareness of the issue to all staff so they can notify us of all overseas visitors and we can approach the patient while they are being treated rather than follow up their case afterwards.
“The team run regular awareness sessions and visit departments and teams to let people know the rules around overseas visitors.
“It is also there to offer advice to staff at any time and there is a presentation at Trust Induction for every new staff member.
“There will also be a mandatory question asked at all Outpatient Departments to confirm the patient’s residency status.”