Overseas patients owe the NHS almost £60 million in unpaid medical bills, with foreign governments among those with the biggest debts.The figures, which cover the past six years, show an increase in the number of visitors leaving the country without paying for treatment.
Embassies and foreign governments have run up debts of nearly £6 million at two London hospitals after failing to pay for non-emergency treatment, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.
More than £4 million is owed to Great Ormond Street children’s hospital by Middle Eastern governments that arrange for children to have treatments not available in their own countries.
While much of the debt is still being chased, more than half has been abandoned or written off.
Free NHS hospital treatment is available to British residents. Overseas patients are charged for the full cost of any treatment they receive unless a specific exemption applies.
Urgent treatment is always available to overseas visitors, regardless of their residence status or ability to pay, but non-urgent treatment should not go ahead without the NHS first receiving payment.
In 2009, West Middlesex University Hospital, in west London, became the first to tell foreign patients they must pay in advance.
The figures reveal that hospitals threatened with closures over mounting debts have written off some of the highest amounts. Imperial College trust, which is £100 million in debt and in the process of making major cuts, is owed £2.5 million and has written off a further £2 million.
The trust for Chase Farm hospital, in north London, which received a bail-out from the Challenged Trust Board and is being forced to close its A&E department, has a foreign debt of £2.5 million.
The Government recently introduced a policy to deny new visas to tourists with outstanding NHS payments.
The burden on the taxpayer is expected to increase next year with one million extra visitors and foreign dignitaries attending the Olympics in London.
Separate figures show that European governments owe £38.5 million to Britain under the system that allows visitors free emergency treatment on the NHS.
Statistics released in a Parliamentary written question show that almost half of the total owed in the European Health Insurance Card scheme, £17.2 million, is due from Ireland.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “At a time when the NHS needs to make £20 billion of savings by 2014, why are managers at hospitals not desperately chasing these unpaid bills? Why are we writing off this money and throwing it down the drain when it could be used to fund front line services and help patients?”
Simon Burns, a health minister, said: “Hospitals must take every reasonable measure to recover any debts from overseas patients. The NHS has a duty to anyone whose life or long-term health is at immediate risk, but we cannot afford to become an international health service, providing free treatment for all.”