HEAlth chiefs in Leeds are resorting to using debt collectors to recover thousand of pounds in unpaid medical bills by overseas patients who are not eligible for free treatment on the NHS.
New figures revealed by the Yorkshire Evening Post show trusts across the region have been chasing unpaid invoices totalling more than £1.3m from 2016-17.
At Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, the total outstanding was £388,000 – of which £140,000 had been written off.
Some hospitals – including Leeds – have said they have hired debt collectors to chase payments, which included the bills of foreign nationals who were treated in NHS hospitals after falling ill while visiting the country.
In October last year, the Government changed the rules requiring hospitals to charge overseas patients up-front for non-urgent care in a bid to clamp down on “health tourism” which is estimated to cost up to £2bn a year.
Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust said it routinely checked the residency status of patients and began charging upfront in 2015.
A spokesperson said: “We will not turn away any patients who are not eligible for free NHS care as if the treating clinician decides a patient’s treatment is urgent or immediately necessary, then treatment will be provided regardless of an ability to pay.
“The trust uses a variety of methods to recover outstanding monies, including the use of debt recovery agencies where appropriate.”
Wakefield-based Mid Yorkshire Hospitals Trust had around £158,000 outstanding from overseas patients. Mark Braden, director of estates and facilities, said: “No treatment deemed immediately necessary or urgent would be refused. Our finance team recovers the outstanding debts in conjunction with our overseas visitor team.”
Warnings have been made that busy NHS trusts would struggle to carry out all the checks needed to recover costs from overseas patients.
Phillippa Hentsch, head of analysis for NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said: “Although some trusts are making good progress at putting measures in place, we have to acknowledge that it is often difficult to identify patients who can be charged. Many trusts will need further support to ensure that they have the means and resources to meet these rules.”