NHS owed thousands by overseas patients

SUFFOLK hospitals are currently trying to trace more than £100,000 for treatment they have given to overseas patients not entitled to free healthcare on the NHS, it has emerged.

Russell Claydon

SUFFOLK hospitals are currently trying to trace more than £100,000 for treatment they have given to overseas patients not entitled to free healthcare on the NHS, it has emerged.

Vast sums have already been written off - including over £130,000 from one patient alone - and now health chiefs are enlisting top overseas tracing agents to clamp down on the problem.

A Freedom of Information request by the EADT has found that debt accrued from foreign patients evading the system currently stands at £107,599 at Suffolk's two major acute hospitals - Ipswich and West Suffolk.

After hearing that the county's hospitals have no insurance to cover them on the treatment, a Suffolk health campaigner has called for more vigorous checking procedures to be put in place, including holding passports, to ensure less money is lost to travellers.

West Suffolk Hospital, which has £86, 240 outstanding, revealed it has enlisted the help of top US tracing agents to recover money from non-paying overseas patients, who turn up at A&E for urgent treatment and then skip the country before the bill arrives.

Most Read

Debt enforcement agencies with links abroad are also being recruited by Ipswich Hospital finance chiefs but they still had to write off a combined £152,962 for the treatment of five individual patients over the last three years. As it stands, the hospital currently has £21, 359 outstanding.

Prue Rush, the former spokeswoman of the now disbanded Ipswich patient and public involvement forum, said she believes more needs to be done to address the worrying problem.

“It is a problem and it will upset people who are waiting for their treatment,” she said. “We do not want to discourage foreigners coming here but we cannot afford to just let them run free for their treatment when it is not free for us.

“We need more organisation when they are in hospitals to find out their nationality and referring it back to their embassies if they have not got insurance.”

She added hospitals were right to strike a balance between spending to chase the money and dropping it if it looked like it was unlikely to be recovered.

A spokesperson for the Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust said their debt was reviewed at least one a month.

She said: “In the majority of instances the patients were admitted through A&E, and treating the patient has to take priority. In these cases only after the initial treatment can we establish whether they are in fact an overseas visitor.”

She said the hospital did not have a problem with “health tourism” and all the cases to date were genuine visitors.

“We do not have insurance as the amounts for our hospital are relatively small - of the 41 visitors treated in our last financial year only two invoices for £2,100 have been written off. We had one large account previously where we had to write off £133,000 that related to a patient who was diagnosed with cancer,” she said.

In all instances of unpaid accounts the hospital said agents overseas were appointed, where necessary, and the information passed onto the British Council offices so they are aware for future visa applications.

The spokeswoman added: “It is worth stating that we had 41 overseas patients last year who were not entitled to NHS care - approximately 0.1% of all our emergency activity, so we have to balance the needs of the vast majority who need emergency care which should not be delayed, against the tiny minority who may not be entitled to free care, but still deserve the chance to stay alive.”

Linda Potter, director of finance at West Suffolk Hospital NHS Trust, believes foreign patient debt is not a big problem at the Bury St Edmunds hospital.

She said they were very good at managing the problem and due to using specialist tracing agencies, only wrote off a small proportion of the reneged bills last year.

“As far as we are concerned it does not impact on the treatment we provide to NHS patients at all. We spent £120 million on treatment last year and we wrote off only about £2,300 - it is a very small part of what we do.”

She said due to not being insured against the foreign treatment they budget for it within their £60,000 on debtors and do not spend money pursuing any overseas bills below £500 if the patient has already skipped the country.

The James Paget Hospital in Gorleston is currently chasing £5,973.82 of overseas debt. Their process for dealing with the problem is currently under review and a different debt collection company, with contacts overseas has recently been appointed.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter