UK hospitals abandon plan to check international patients

A political plan based on questionable statistics, where UK hospitals and doctors would have policed international “health tourists” seeking NHS treatment has been dropped, after a pilot programme failed.

Politicians wanted NHS hospitals to demand payment before treatment on any person who could not prove they were a UK resident entitled to free NHS treatment.

Under strict rules, patients were to be asked to prove their eligibility by showing a passport plus evidence of a permanent UK address. Many doctors, nurses and hospital managers opposed the plans on the grounds that they discriminated on race and culture, particularly targeting recent immigrants with poor language skills. The British Medical Association and Royal College of Surgeons also opposed the plans on the grounds that “doctors are not border guards making immigration checks”.

Pilot for proof of ID dropped

In 2017, the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced rules legally obliging hospitals to charge patients upfront for ‘non-urgent’ treatment. In 2017, 18 hospital trusts ran a three-month pilot scheme, where patients were asked for both photo ID and proof of a UK address. Few hospitals lasted the full three months before abandoning the pilot.

The pilot showed up the bias in comments made by some politicians and media sources. In reality, these pilots have found, the numbers of patients who were not fee paying, that were not entitled to free NHS care is very small.

The Department of Health concluded that the administrative costs far outweighed any promised costs savings to the NHS overall or any individual hospital. NHS hospitals have been told that the plans had been scrapped in favour of ensuring hospitals had better procedures for chasing outstanding bills from patients who had not paid.

NHS hospital inefficiency in chasing private patients

According to Department of Health figures for 2018, the NHS is still owed £27 million for overseas patients who have not paid their bills. This is not an argument against NHS “health tourism”, it is arguably the fault of inefficient NHS hospitals who have not chased payment from legitimate private patients and their sponsors – companies or governments.

Patients Not Passports campaign

UK Healthcare workers and allies are now campaigning against NHS charges on migrants. ‘Patients Not Passports’ is an online resource to support individuals to advocate for people who face advance payments ahead of accessing NHS care, and to end immigration checks on those suspected of being overseas visitors.

The aim of the toolkit is to aid the building of a grassroots movement of individuals who believe that healthcare in the UK should be free at the point of access for all – and encourage local groups to lobby their NHS trusts to oppose discriminatory policies.

Charging occurs in secondary care, including hospitals and community services provided by both NHS and non-NHS funded providers. Most primary care, including accessing a GP is still free for everyone. Treatment in A&E, urgent care centres, and walk in centres is also still free.

The Government defends charges despite its own data (which, IMTJ believes, is badly flawed) shows that deliberate health tourism accounts for only 0.3% of the NHS budget.

Inbound medical tourism threat

Politics aside, UK media criticism of inbound NHS “health tourists” is potentially dissuading genuine paying medical tourists from coming to the UK to either private or NHS hospitals.