A pilot scheme set up by Jeremy Hunt to check whether patients were entitled to free NHS care found only a tiny number were ineligible, the Standard can reveal.
Figures from London hospitals who asked 8,894 people for two forms of ID prior to treatment showed only 50 – or one in 180 – had to pay for their care.
Campaigners today called on the Government to abandon any plans to extend the pilot nationwide as they branded the attempted crackdown on “health tourism” a “waste of time”.
Dr Jessica Potter, of Docs Not Cops, said: “People who are most likely to be charged are the least able to pay. There is no evidence it saves the NHS an appreciable amount of money.”
The ID-checking pilots ran in selected areas in 18 NHS trusts, of which 11 were in London, for about two months last autumn.
No patients were refused care but there was widespread concern that many, such as vulnerable “undocumented migrants”, potentially suffering from life-threatening or contagious diseases, could be deterred from seeking medical help. Doctors held a protest outside St Thomas’s hospital as the trials started.
All people attending A&E departments, including overseas patients, are entitled to free emergency care. Non-UK nationals are charged for non-urgent care or the costs are reclaimed under reciprocal agreements with EU nations. Health Secretary Mr Hunt said he wanted the pilots to help “chargeable patients to make more informed choices about whether they continue to seek care in England when the cost is made clear”.
Barts Health asked 2,752 patients attending outpatient renal clinics at the Royal London hospital for ID. Two were found ineligible for free treatment and billed a total of £2,500.
It also found 17 of 1,497 maternity patients at Newham hospital ineligible and billed them £104,706. Inquiries continue into a further 77 patients.
Barts Health said it had continued to ask for up-front ID in these departments but had shelved plans to extend the checks to maternity and orthopaedics at the Royal London.
Dr Ron Singer, chairman of Newham Save Our NHS, said the trials were “part of the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy” that resulted in uproar over the treatment of Windrush migrants.
He said: “What’s also a concern is the stress this places on NHS staff. It’s very unclear whether everybody going for a service is asked for ID, or only people with ‘foreign’ names or ‘coloured’ faces.
“If you go to Newham hospital you will see huge signs saying you may not be eligible for free NHS treatment. The hostility is right in your face.”
St George’s, in Tooting, which at one stage was owed £5 million by overseas patients, screened 1,660 maternity patients over five months. Eighteen were found to be ineligible and were billed a total of £45,000. It also carried out checks on neurology and neurosurgery patients.
Imperial College Healthcare trust, which runs St Mary’s, Charing Cross and Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea hospitals in west London, ran checks in its maternity and renal departments.
It said: “Over the three months, 985 patients passed through the pilot areas. Sixteen of these patients were referred to the trust’s overseas visitor team for further enquiries and one patient was identified as being chargeable.”
Barking, Havering and Redbridge trust screened 1,021 women attending maternity at Queen’s hospital. Eleven were ineligible and were each billed £6,500. It has since abandoned the checks.
King’s College hospital checked 979 ophthalmology and orthopaedics patients. One was chargeable and a further 13 are undergoing extra checks.
The Royal Free ran checks for two months in A&E but said it had not retained details of how many were asked for ID.
Guy’s and St Thomas’, UCLH, Chelsea and Westminster, London North West Healthcare and Hillingdon refused to release details or did not respond to several requests for the information.
Dr Potter said: “Given the hostile environment at the moment, people are put off seeking help when they are unwell. They are worried about being charged and not being able to afford it. That is bad for the individuals and bad for public health.”
The Department of Health and Social Care declined to say whether upfront ID-checking would be abandoned in light of the trial.
It said: “The NHS is a national, not an international, health service and it’s only fair that hospitals make sure those not eligible for free care contribute to the cost of treatment they receive.
“ID checking is not a requirement of our charging regulations, but has proven to be helpful in some circumstances, which is which is why we trialled it across some NHS sites in England.”
- An edited version of this story appears in tonight’s Evening Standard