Hospital clamps down on health tourism by demanding patients prove they are 'living lawfully' in Britain before handing out free NHS treatment
Staff working at Southend Hospital in Essex must ask patients if they have lived in the UK for the past year

Strict new rules have been introduced after an increase in overseas visitors not eligible for free NHS care

|

UPDATED:

12:05 GMT, 28 May 2012

Patients must prove they are 'living lawfully' in Britain before receiving free treatment on the NHS at an Essex hospital.

In a clampdown on health tourism, those suspected of living outside the UK will face tough questioning upon arrival at Southend Hospital.

The strict new rules have been introduced after an increase in overseas visitors not eligible for free NHS care.

Clampdown: Staff working at Southend Hospital in Essex must ask patients if they have lived in the country for the past 12 months

Clampdown: Staff working at Southend Hospital in Essex must ask patients if they have lived in the country for the past 12 months

As part of the initiative, staff working in the hospital's A&E and outpatient clinics must ask patients, when they are being booked in, if they have lived in the country for the past 12 months.

And having a British passport is not enough – patients must also be permanently based in the UK.

The hospital has decided to act ahead of the London Olympics and next week's Diamond Jubilee celebrations and because of the growth and success of nearby Southend Airport.

Julie Alabaster, overseas patient manager, said: 'If they have not lived here for more than 12 months, they must fill in a registration form which is sent to our team to investigate.

'Being in possession of a British passport, or an NHS number, does not automatically entitle someone to free hospital care.

'Neither does owning a property in the UK, having British nationality or having paid National Insurance contributions and taxes in the UK.

HEALTH TOURISTS TAKE MORE THAN 35M OF FREE TREATMENT SINCE 2004

Health Minister Simon Burns (pictured) last year revealed that health tourists have taken at least 35million of free treatment over the last eight years.

Health Minister Simon Burns

That is the sum health service bosses have written off after foreign patients came to the UK for treatment – and left without paying.

The Department of Health is still trying to recover millions more from thousands of others who have abused British hospitality, so the real figure could be far higher.

Entitlement to free NHS hospital treatment is based on a patient being ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK.

Anyone else will be charged for the full cost of any treatment they receive unless an exemption applies to the particular therapy.

While treatment in an accident and emergency department is automatically free to all, emergency care elsewhere is not.

However urgent treatment, such as maternity care, will always be given regardless of residence status or ability to pay afterwards.

UK Border Agency officials see 150 cases a year at Gatwick Airport of heavily pregnant passengers arriving with visitor visas.

Last year the Home Office and Department of Health admitted the existing system 'is still too complex, generous and inconsistently applied.'

They promised stricter checks to make sure the details of overseas patients are properly recorded so hospitals can recover any debt.

Also those visitors who have run up 1,000 or more in medical debts will not be allowed back into the country.

'NHS hospital treatment is dependent on a patient being “ordinarily resident”, which means they must be living lawfully on a properly settled basis in the UK.'

The hospital will also make enquiries with the Home Office and UK Border Agency, Ms Alabaster said.

She added: 'We are protecting the Trust’s resources for the people who are entitled to free healthcare.'

All patients attending the hospital for the first time are alerted daily to the overseas patient team to check if they are entitled to NHS care.

Last Thursday alone, there were 70 patients flagged up and put through the system.

Anyone who owes more than 1,000 in unpaid NHS hospital charges will be identified to the UK Border Agency and will not be allowed to come or stay in Britain until the debt is paid off.

However, A&E treatment will remain free to all.

Patients visiting from the EU will be asked for their European Health Insurance Card, which enables the hospital to claim the cost back from the member country.

The move comes a month after campaigner warned that GPs have too much freedom to register sick foreigners who may not be entitled to expensive British healthcare.

Migration Watch UK claimed family doctors could decide whether to take on patients without identity documents and give them free treatment which should not be available to them.

The revelation followed a written Parliamentary answer from Health Minister Simon Burns admitting there was no formal requirement for foreigners to provide documentation when registering with a GP.

Mr Burns said: 'A decision on whether to register a foreign national who has a six-month visitor's visa is therefore currently for the GP to consider.'

Migration Watch chairman Sir Andrew Green said: 'What this means is that someone getting off a plane with a valid visitor's visa is in effect able to access the GP services of the NHS without ever having paid a penny into the system.

'Once registered with a GP it is, in practice, an easy step to potentially highly-expensive and long term treatment – all at the expense of the UK taxpayer with little or no prospect of the beneficiaries ever being charged for it.'

Sir Andrew said it was not for doctors to 'act as an arm of the immigration service' and warned of 'clear and substantial risks of abuse in such a lax system'.

He added: 'The present situation is outrageous. Everyone knows the pressure the NHS is under and its ever increasing cost to the taxpayer.

'To allow such easy and potentially hugely-expensive access without any entitlement must be stopped at once, otherwise the NHS risks becoming the World Health Service.'