Patients at 20 NHS hospitals forced to show passports and ID in 'health tourism' crackdown

Expanded pilot scheme follows move at St George's Hospital in London to make pregnant women prove their right to use health service before giving birth

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Hospitals are refusing free treatment to patients who cannot show a utility bill and passport under a new scheme designed to crack down on so-called "health tourism".

Patients who need routine operations, from hip and knee replacements to giving birth, will have to produce proof of their identity to show they are eligible for NHS care before they are admitted.

Extra staff are being sent to 20 hospital trusts in metropolitan areas to help with the checks, according to a spokesperson for NHS Improvement, which has launched the pilot scheme with the Home Office.

The hospitals, half of which are in London, will be supported under the programme until the end of the year to see if it will proceed elsewhere, the spokesperson told The Independent.

They said the scheme was being run at hospitals with the biggest funding gap attributed to overseas visitors and migrants in an attempt to meet the Government’s target of recovering up to £500m a year in this way.

“This action will ensure that free healthcare is only provided to those entitled to it, and open up the potential for significant financial gain for the NHS,” they said. ​

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Under the scheme, if a patient cannot prove their identity they will be charged up-front for ambulance and A&E services, unless it is an emergency or a matter of life and death.

The spokesperson said some treatment, such as diagnosis, would remain free, but hospital staff would be advised by a specialist 'cost recovery support team' on how to identify and recover charges from non-eligible patients.

Hospitals taking part are said to include St George’s Hospital in Tooting, Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College Hospital, as well as trusts in Birmingham and Manchester.

Some doctors have said they would boycott the plans, which would force NHS medical staff and administrators to carry out extra checks on patients in times of intense pressure on the health service.

Lucina Hiam, a GP and volunteer at a clinic in London run by the charity Doctors of the World, told The Independent the plans were “completely inappropriate”.

“We are already facing such a difficult time in the NHS, when morale is very low, and to ask already very stretched staff to be acting as immigration officials is just completely inappropriate,” she said.

Dr Hiam said if migrants who had been living in the UK for years were afraid to see a doctor for routine health problems, these could escalate and become emergencies, costing the health service even more.

“From a medical point of view, the most important thing is that vulnerable people have access to healthcare,” she said. “Everyone's proud of the NHS because it does level everybody, and everybody's treated equally.”

An investigation by the Press Association found overseas patients who were not entitled to free treatment on the NHS had left the health service with an unpaid bill of almost £30m in one year.

Some trusts are still trying to chase the money from overseas patients while others have written a portion off as bad debt.

Details of several high-cost cases have emerged, including a hospital in Luton which is allegedly £350,000 out of pocket after a Nigerian mother flew to Britain to give birth to twins, according to the Daily Mail.

The Public Accounts Committee met in November to discuss government policy for NHS treatment for overseas patients and how to reclaim the money from individuals or their home countries.

Chris Wormald, the Department of Health’s top civil servant, said plans to require patients to show identification before receiving treatment were “controversial” and would change the culture of the health service, which was not set up to check identity and charge people.

He said the Department had identified the trusts where there is the biggest gap between what should be charged and what was actually charged.

The expanded pilot scheme follows measures taken at St George's Hospital to ask every pregnant woman who arrives in its maternity wings to prove she has the right to use the health service.

St George's said the move was to combat the growing problem of maternity and health tourism at UK hospitals and the "blanket" approach to all women was to avoid accusations of discrimination.

"No one will be discriminated against. The intention is for this to become standard procedure," said the proposals, seen by the Health Service Journal.

Estimates published by the fact checking charity FullFact found the annual cost of foreigners using the NHS was around £2bn.

Of this, the Department of Health predicted that £500m per year could be recovered but only £100m was received in 2013/14.

It said the number of people who came to the UK deliberately to seek treatment was small, with the cost being between £110m and £280m a year, with the majority of overseas patients being forced to use it in an emergency.

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