Under the previous Labour Government the NHS lost hundreds of millions of pounds through the treatment of foreign patients where the costs were not recovered.
As such, last year I was delighted by the broad support I received from my Conservative colleagues following my introduction of the NHS Audit Requirements (Foreign National) Bill to Parliament.
Freedom of Information Act requests have shown that most NHS trusts at best only cursorily audit the treatment of foreign nationals not entitled to automatic free healthcare and GP practices do not record this information at all, despite in many other countries access to primary care having a nominal charge for all patients, including British visitors. This is the case in countries like France and Germany where an entry fee for primary care is required or in Spain where proof of insurance is needed.
The purpose of my Bill is not to deny healthcare to foreign nationals, but to ensure that reciprocal arrangements we have with European Economic Area nations, and other countries, are properly used so the British health budget is not unfairly burdened.
Many hospitals do not even ask whether patients are foreign nationals, with one poll of NHS managers showing that a third of them did not routinely ask patients about their eligibility for free care.
The issue of fairness is key. Fairness to the British taxpayers that fund the system and fairness to those that use it.
Emergency medical treatment should of course always be provided to those who require it at the point of need without exception. Beyond that, entitlement to free healthcare is considerably more generous to visitors and short-term residents than is reciprocated for UK citizens abroad and our system is the most liberal, and lax, than anywhere else in the world.
GPs may choose to register any person as an NHS patient and indeed are actively encouraged to register all those who approach them, even where an individual has no right to free NHS care. Thus many foreign nationals receive free primary care, including free prescriptions, and once registered with a GP have essentially unlimited access via referral throughout the NHS without charge.
Hospitals have a duty to enforce the regulations and screen all patients for eligibility, applying charges where appropriate, but most do not, struggle to do so, or do not bother at all.
Last year I sent Freedom of Information Act requests to 445 Health organisations comprising of Primary Care Trusts, Foundation Trusts, Acute Trusts and so on, enquiring as to whether they screen foreign patients for auditing purposes. What was extremely concerning was that only 105 Trusts were able to respond with data at all. Information, therefore, was only supplied by less than a quarter of NHS organisations, and what data that did exist was patchy at best.
Locally, UK Border Agency officials see on average 150 cases a year at Gatwick Airport of heavily pregnant passengers arriving with visitor visas and East Surrey Hospital had to recently write-off debts of £425,000 for the treatment of foreign nationals who avoided payment.
Even when overseas patients try to pay often they are unable because the cost of their care is not recorded. I am aware of one case in which a US citizen who asked for a receipt after receiving medical care in order to claim it back on their health insurance was told that the Trust did not have the necessary facilities to provide them with an invoice.
This petition calls on Parliament to:
l Qualify residency criteria for free NHS care
l Create more effective and efficient processes to screen for eligibility
l Establish more robust methods of securing recovery of treatment costs including options for requiring health insurance
These measures would save the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. We need a fair National Health Service, not an abused international Health Service.
I would encourage local residents to sign up to the petition urging Parliament to take action to secure a fair deal for taxpayers and NHS staff alike.
You can sign up for the petition on line by going to https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/parliament-recover-health-tourism-debt
Or fill in the form, below, and send it to Henry Smith, MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA