NHS patients from overseas will be told to pay upfront for non-urgent treatment in a tough new government stance to avoid crippling unpaid bills totalling millions of pounds as a result of so-called health tourism.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will today explain how new legally binding rules aim to bring about a culture change within NHS trusts to avoid unpaid invoices for treatment mounting up and being written off after non-EU nationals have already received treatment.
Mr Hunt claims that introducing a legal duty for trusts to check if overseas patients are eligible for non-urgent care, and then asking those patients to pay upfront, that £500m can be clawed back annually from ‘health tourists’.
Trusts currently collect only around half of the money owed and as of December, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that the treatment of overseas patients led to an unpaid bill of almost £30m in 2015/16 - including £752,643 accrued by trusts in Yorkshire.
The rule change means that from April anyone flying to the UK for non-urgent treatment such as a hip operation or cataract removal could be turned away unless they agree to pay for their procedure. People in need of urgent care will still be treated immediately at the NHS’s expense, but they can be invoiced if it is found they are ineligible for free care.
Mr Hunt said: “We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS - as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does. So today we are announcing plans to change the law which means those who aren’t eligible for free care will be asked to pay upfront for non-urgent treatment.
“We aim to recover up to £500m a year by the middle of this Parliament - money that can then be reinvested in patient care.”
Other possible scenarios when an overseas patient would be asked to pay upfront include where they have been referred to hospital by a GP for a condition to be diagnosed and payment is agreed before treatment starts.
Individual trusts will decide whether to take a payment there and then, or allow patients to commit to a payment plan. Patients will also be able to choose not to have treatment if they have no means of paying the bill.
Some trusts will check eligibility by asking people to produce two forms of identification, but the decision on how best to check eligibility will again rest with trusts. Hospitals and other parts of the NHS will also have to flag up a patient’s chargeable status to make it easier for other NHS bodies to recoup costs.
Dr Kathy Mclean, executive medical director at NHS Improvement, said: “This new approach will enable NHS hospitals to devote more time and resource to treating patients rather than chasing money they are owed.”
Also under the government plans, anyone from outside the European Economic Area who is staying in the UK for longer than six months will not be eligible for free fertility treatment on the NHS.