More needs to be done to make complex rules transparent on whether people from overseas must pay for NHS hospital treatment, according to Reading’s local health and care watchdog.
Healthwatch Reading has supported at least 30 people since 2016 with cases involving NHS charges through its advocacy service, Reading Voice, and was speaking out after the Reading Chronicle revealed that the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust has charged ‘overseas visitors’ £3,691,000 since 2016.
Healthwatch Reading team manager Rebecca Curtayne said: “The rules on charging are complex and not understood very well. Many people will be surprised, for example, to discover that some British citizens who have been living abroad for many years will not automatically qualify for free hospital treatment during visits or on return to the UK.
“There are also different rules for getting GP or hospital care: anyone can register with a GP, regardless of their immigration status, and anyone can get free treatment in A&E. But if you’re from overseas and admitted to hospital, you could be charged, but you should be told this before your treatment starts. Some people are also exempt from charges, such as refugees, asylum seekers and children under local authority care. And if you’re an overseas woman who is pregnant, who is liable for charges, your maternity care should not be withheld or delayed because of payment.”
Another complexity involves the Immigration Health Surcharge – a fee of up to £400 per year for international students or people on work or spouse visas coming to the UK - which exempts you from paying for NHS hospital treatment. However, this fee does not apply to fertility treatment, and many of the Healthwatch Reading cases have involved people who had not been made aware of the rule change around this.
In another case, Healthwatch Reading supported the family of a man who was admitted to Royal Berkshire Hospital on the advice of a local GP, during a visit to the UK. The man had been admitted at the weekend, when the hospital’s overseas visitors team was not working. He subsequently died back in his home country. The hospital reduced the bill from around £6,000 to £1500 to his family for his care after we raised issues around whether information on charges and treatment had been communicated to the man and his family on admission.
Healthwatch Reading met the Royal Berkshire Hospital overseas visitors team earlier this year in a constructive meeting to understand their processes and to give feedback about patient experiences.