Unpaid bills run up by ‘health tourists’ have cost the NHS £219million, a Mail investigation reveals today.
Patients from 155 different countries have had maternity care, cancer treatment and heart surgery courtesy of UK taxpayers.
And they owe £138million to 98 health trusts with a further £80million written off over the past two years.
MPs called for an end to the NHS being treated as an ‘International Health Service’ when it faces spiralling costs, huge waiting lists and crippling strike action.
Visitors from Nigeria ran up the biggest debts, owing £6.1million. Indian nationals owe £3.1million, Romanians £2.5million, Jamaicans £2.2million and Americans £2million.
Sonia from the Philippines had her heart problems treated by the NHS
A single patient from Morocco has dodged a £333,000 bill for undisclosed treatment, while another from Sierra Leone did not pay £294,000.
The highest bills are for maternity services – a total of £19million – followed by £2.2million for obstetrics care.
An NHS report warned last August that foreign citizens were travelling to the UK with the ‘specific intent’ of using NHS maternity services without paying the typical £7,000 fee.
The NHS’s Counter Fraud Authority said pregnant women were ‘likely to use a false identity or leave the UK soon after’ giving birth.
Data uncovered by the Mail shows that Barts in London is owed £4.3million for maternity care, £84,000 more than Lewisham and Greenwich, also in the capital.
Barts also has one of the highest overall bills from foreign nationals, with £13.4million left unpaid. However Imperial College, which has £15million missing, tops the list.
Also in London, Guy’s and St Thomas’ has lost £8.3million and King’s College £7.8million, including £300,000 from a patient from India, £125,000 from Russians and £87,000 from Americans.
Northern Care Alliance in Greater Manchester has a black hole of £5.6million while North Bristol NHS Trust is owed £4.9million by visitors from 78 countries including £118,000 from Albanians, £152,000 from Bulgarians and £687,000 from Romanians.
Priscilla from Nigeria gave birth to triplets in an NHS hospital
‘I didn’t plan to give birth in UK and can’t afford £500,000 cost’
Priscilla gave birth to premature triplets in the NHS facility
A Nigerian mother who gave birth to quadruplets in the UK admitted she could not afford the £500,000 bill.
The 43-year-old, known only as Priscilla, appeared in the BBC2 show Hospital when she gave birth at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital in west London, part of Imperial College Hospital.
Sadly, only two of the babies survived and both required treatment in intensive care, costing £20,000 a week. The 2017 show captured the moment she was told she could not receive free treatment.
‘I didn’t plan to come here,’ she told an NHS manager. ‘Money can’t buy life. The last bill I had was £331,000 but… I would never earn that much money. My kids are priceless.’
The show revealed that Priscilla underwent IVF treatment and was told by her doctor to fly to the US to have her babies as Nigerian hospitals do not have the ‘facilities to cater for the children’.
But she was turned away at the US border because officials feared she would not be able to afford the hospital bills.
On her way back to Nigeria, she stopped over in London and began having contractions. Imperial College Hospital would not comment on whether Priscilla has since repaid any of the money she owed.
The figures were obtained through freedom of information requests put to all 219 health trusts in England and Wales. Some 98 are owed money and 34 have a bill more than £1million.
Fifty-seven trusts failed to respond to the request, despite having a legal obligation to do so, meaning the true figures are likely to be much higher.
More than £8.8million is owed by patients whose nationality is ‘unknown’ because some trusts fail to record the information, prompting questions over how they will ever recoup the lost income.
Birmingham Women and Children’s Hospital, which is owed more than £640,000 for all medical treatments, said: ‘We do not record nationality so therefore cannot provide this information.’
UK citizens also owe the health service money because many expats who have moved overseas use the NHS when they return despite not being entitled to free treatment.
Citizens from wealthy countries including the US, Canada, and Australia also ranked high among those with unpaid bills, owing a combined total of £2.4million.
Some of the bills date back as far as 2009. Public accounts show that £80,418,871 worth of treatment given to foreign nationals has been cancelled by hospital bosses over the past two financial years.
Barts has written off £16.2million after finding it ‘challenging’ to recoup the money owed. Lewisham and Greenwich accepted it would not be able to collect £6.1million and Chelsea and Westminster in London waved goodbye to £2.5million.
Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith called on the ‘hopeless’ NHS charging system to be reformed, adding: ‘Every other country will ask you to pay.
‘This has been going on as long as I’ve been in politics. The doctors and systems are resistant to actually asking people to pay for their treatment.
‘They just treat people who come through the door and don’t say here’s the bill. They don’t view it as their job.
‘We should have a system that says if you’re a foreign national you should be paying for your treatment.
‘They should have to identify their nationality and then tell people how much it will cost. It’s hopeless. This has been argued about for years and the health service just can’t be bothered to do anything about it.’
The highest bills are for maternity services followed by obstetrics care (file image)
Fellow Tory MP Henry Smith said the ‘shocking’ debt showed that the NHS needed to introduce a ‘much more robust system’ for charging foreign visitors.
‘It is a National Health Service not an “International Health Service” and the British taxpayer shouldn’t be expected to pick up that bill particularly given the other pressures there are on the health system,’ he added.
Mr Smith said that while some emergency medicine was legitimate for visitors in cases of life or death, some patients were abusing non-urgent NHS care.
‘This elective use of the NHS by foreign visitors is unacceptable and we need to look at a much more robust system to mitigate against that,’ he said.
For elective treatment for overseas patients, cancer treatment starts from £3,000, while cardiology starts from £5,000 and goes up to £15,000 for surgery. The rules say ‘payment must be collected in full’ beforehand.
NHS guidance says maternity care is urgent and should always been given to a patient in need, but they should be billed afterwards if they are not entitled to use the health service for free.
In August, the CFA report warned: ‘The high cost of healthcare across the globe is potentially encouraging some people to enter the UK with the specific intent of seeking NHS maternity care without charge.
‘As maternity care cannot be delayed for an advance payment, patients are likely to use a false identity or leave the UK soon after treatment to avoid payment.’
The revealed cost of ‘health tourists’ come as the NHS grapples with huge waiting lists
The Home Office has tried to recover outstanding NHS debts from health tourists.
A report into its ‘hostile environment’, which was abandoned after the Windrush scandal, showed that 12,112 overseas patients had been chased.
Of these 63 per cent were women, their average age was 44 and the most common nationalities were Indian (14 per cent), Nigerian (13 per cent) and American (10 per cent).
A spokesman for Barts said: ‘Where appropriate, we make every effort to recover payment from patients who are liable for the cost of their treatment.
‘However, many patients may have limited funds available and some will not be resident in the UK, which means recovering payment can be difficult.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘The NHS is funded by taxpayers and it is only right that overseas visitors contribute towards their treatment costs.
‘We have strengthened the rules so that non-urgent NHS care must be paid for in advance and that any debts that arise from providing urgent care are pursued, with unpaid debts taken into account in new visa applications.
‘As a result, between 2015 and 2021 almost £3billion was reported in income from overseas visitors using the NHS.’