The National Health Service is still falling woefully short of collecting payments due from foreigners using its services, a new report has revealed. The figures have prompted the government to draw up plans for debt collector ‘hit squads’ to visit NHS Trusts which consistently fail to recover costs.
Two years ago, amid concerns that the cash-strapped NHS was losing as much as £2 billion a year by failing to charge for its services, ministers drew up a cost recovery programme to recoup the costs of those not entitled to free care under the law.
They included a target to recoup £500 million a year from foreign visitors by 2017/18. But a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has revealed that the NHS is projected to fall far short of that target, and that some Trusts are still failing to recover any costs at all.
“Hospital trusts remain some way from complying in full with the requirement to charge and recover the cost of treating overseas visitors,” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO.
Morse warned: “If current trends continue and the charging rules remain the same, the Department will not achieve its ambition of recovering up to £500 million of overseas visitor income a year by 2017-18 and faces a potential shortfall in the region of £150 million.”
He added: “In the past two years, the amounts charged and amounts actually recovered have increased. Much of this increase is the result of changes to the charging rules.”
According to the report, £164 million in 2015-16 was raised by a new immigration health surcharge introduced by the Home Office in April 2015. The £200 surcharge is payable by most students and temporary migrants from outside the EEA, extending the scope of charging to people who were previously eligible for free treatment.
Reviewing a survey of 2,170 hospital staff, the NAO found that 42 per cent of doctors and 55 per cent of nurses were still unaware that overseas patients are to be charged for care. Of those who were aware, just 48 per cent of doctors and 27 per cent of nurses didn’t think it was their role to recover those costs.
It further found that eight NHS trusts failed to collect a single payment from health tourists, with the NAO commenting that “the Department [of Health] does not have a good understanding of why some trusts do better than others. In 2015-16, just ten trusts, all in London, accounted for half of the total amount charged to visitors from outside the EEA.”
It is understood that the government is now preparing to send in teams of expert ‘debt collectors’ into such trusts, The Telegraph has reported, as well as drawing up plans to introduce charges for overseas patients who use Accident & Emergency departments, ambulance services, maternity units, and GPs.
Currently, only patients who are “ordinarily resident” in the UK and have lived here for at least six months are eligible for free treatment, operations, and scans. Accident and emergency, life-saving care, and GP services are free to all.
Last night Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, spoke of his determination to ensure the NHS was not “abused”.
He said: “We consulted earlier this year on extending the charging of migrants and visitors using the NHS to other areas of healthcare. We will set out further steps in due course to ensure we deliver on our objective to recover £500 million a year by the middle of this Parliament.”
Earlier this month, it emerged that one London hospital planned to crack down on health tourism after discovering that agents in Nigeria were encouraging women to travel to the UK to have their babies on the NHS for free. The hospital, St George’s in Tooting, South London, had treated 900 such women over the previous year alone.
Professor J Meirion Thomas, a former cancer surgeon at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, told the Daily Mail: “Hospitals lose approximately £2 billion a year to health tourism. The only way to curb it is to ask all new patients to present ID.”