Pregnant British woman ordered by NHS to prove she is from UK to receive free treatment

'It seems like someone saw my name and it was flagged up,' Emma Szewczak-Harris tells The Independent

Lucy Pasha-Robinson
Saturday 21 October 2017 17:00 BST
Emma Szewczak-Harris, who is nearly nine months pregnant, uses her Polish husband's surname alongside her maiden name
Emma Szewczak-Harris, who is nearly nine months pregnant, uses her Polish husband's surname alongside her maiden name (Emma Szewczak-Harris)

A pregnant British woman, who took her Polish husband's surname, has been ordered to prove she is from the UK in order to receive free NHS treatment.

Emma Szewczak-Harris received a letter from Cambridge University Hospitals foundation trust after attending an appointment at Addenbrooke's Hospital.

The letter, titled "failure to provide proof of identification and residence", asked the 26-year-old to provide evidence for the hospital to "assess whether you are eligible for free NHS treatment".

The Cambridge University graduate, who is eight months pregnant, believes she was targeted because of her "Polish-sounding" name.

Ms Szewczak-Harris, who was born and raised in the UK, uses her Polish husband's surname alongside her maiden name.

"I just received the letter just completely out of the blue. I had had no request for information previously. Never having used the NHS for anything else have I had to prove anything," she told The Independent.

"I was never asked in person, and I sound British and look stereotypically British so I can’t think of any other reason. It seems like someone saw my name and it was flagged up."

She added: "It just seems like a real oversight on their part. I had to be registered with a GP to get a hospital appointment, they have my hospital number, so they could have found this information very easily.

"I was particularly shocked because the letter said I had 'failed' to provide, but I have never been asked."

She said she was also alarmed by the implications for other women receiving the letter who were less assured of their right to prenatal care.

"I was just very concerned for all the other woman who might not be so sure of their right to treatment as I am. It implies if I'm not able to provide the information then I will be refused treatment," she said.

"Dealing with that kind of bureaucracy right now - I'm not going to take my passport into hospital with me, I don’t have time to do that now, I’m nearly nine months pregnant."

An Addenbrooke's spokesperson said the letter was "part of a pilot scheme to stop overseas patients getting certain types of free healthcare on the NHS".

A Cambridge University Hospitals spokesman said: "The Department of Health has asked the trust to pilot a scheme to allow us to better monitor and collect payment from overseas patients who are not eligible for free NHS treatment.

"This brings us into line with national NHS guidelines and how many other trusts operate."

It comes some months after charity Doctors of the World warned vulnerable pregnant women were putting themselves at risk because they were “too frightened” to seek NHS care due to their immigration status.

NHS guidelines state that “no woman must ever be denied, or have delayed, maternity services due to charging issues”.

But hundreds of asylum seekers, trafficking victims and undocumented migrants are not seeking antenatal care because they are afraid they will be charged thousands of pounds or reported to the Home Office, according to the charity.

The Department of Health said its guidance was clear that while NHS Trusts were expected to recover costs from people not eligible for care because they were not UK residents, urgent treatment should never be denied or delayed while this status was established.

It confirmed non-clinical information was shared between health agencies and the Home Office “to trace immigration offenders”, but said this information was under strict control and only shared when there is a legal basis to do so.

A department spokesperson said: “Hospitals in England are legally obliged to check whether patients are eligible for NHS treatment and recover costs where charges apply – but our guidance specifically says that maternity care should never be denied or delayed while a patient’s eligibility is established."

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