Agents in Nigeria have been offering pregnant women paid assistance to have their babies for free on the NHS, a hospital manager has claimed, prompting the London hospital she works for to begin asking pregnant women to show their passports before treatment.
St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south London, is now demanding passports at appointments in the early stages of pregnancy in a bid to reduce its massive £4.6 million annual health tourism bill, the Daily Mail has reported.
The hospital, one of the largest in the country, treated 900 health tourists in the past year alone. Yet according to Jo Johnson, head of private and overseas patients at the hospital, four in five foreign patients abscond before paying for their treatment.
In board papers seen by the Health Service Journal, she said that the hospital had recently become aware that it was being targeted by overseas agents.
“The problem is escalating within obstetrics and we have just been made aware that individuals are currently offering paid assistance to women in Nigeria to have their babies for free on the NHS at St George’s,” she said.
Hospital managers have now said that women would have to present passports at their 12-week scan or at an antenatal appointment, stressing that women in labour would not be turned away.
Women will have to show that they have lived in the UK for six months at least in order to be eligible for free care. Those who are not will not be able to continue with maternity treatment, and may be eligible for deportation.
A spokesman for the Department of Health has welcomed the scheme, but pointed out that all hospitals should be asking for passports anyway – the Department issued new guidelines only last year advising that proof of identity ought to be sought for any patient before treatment.
Many hospitals have ignored the guidelines, however, either thanks to staff shortages or because they assume patients are eligible for treatment.
But a spokesman from St George’s said the hospital planned to stick to the guidelines and needed to be more vigilant thanks to the large numbers of health tourists it had already treated.
Overall, health tourism is thought to cost the NHS £200 million a year for all types of treatment. Hospitals near airports, in particular, are seeing rising numbers of women travelling to the UK to have their babies free of charge before returning home.
In one notorious case, a Nigerian make-up artist racked up a £145,000 bill for the caesarean delivery of her quintuplets before returning home to Lagos, but claimed never to have even received a bill. She told reporters: “If I had, I would have paid it.”
Homerton Hospital, in east London, which provided her treatment, confirmed that it would not be pursuing her for payment even after journalists offered to supply them with her current address.