Hundreds of pregnant foreigners are flying to Britain just days before they give birth to receive free care on the National Health Service (NHS).
A Government report found that immigration officials at one airport stopped more than 300 such mothers over two years. Most of the women had to be admitted and allowed to give birth on the NHS, the report found, because their pregnancies were too advanced for them to fly home.
Airlines typically do not carry women more than seven months pregnant. However, the women boarded flights in their home countries with forged doctors’ notes concealing the length of their pregnancies.
The disclosure will heighten growing fears over “health tourism”, which sees foreigners coming to Britain for free NHS care. The problem of “maternity tourism” has become so acute that staff at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust, in London, refer to the flow of West African women flying in to give birth as the “Lagos Shuttle”.
The Government says health tourism costs the NHS as much as £80 million (Dh483.9 million) a year — enough to pay for about 2,000 nurses. However, estimates seen by The Sunday Telegraph suggest the true figure may be far higher. Guy’s and St Thomas’ alone may be losing more than pounds £5 million a year.
The disclosures come as ministers were expected to unveil a range of measures to tackle the problem yesterday. They are expected to include a new system for identifying patients who should be charged and new fees for some services currently free for foreigners, including Accident and Emergency.
The disclosures about “maternity tourists” emerged from a previously unpublicised consultation document, prepared in 2010, on plans to refuse entry to foreigners with unpaid NHS bills. The report found that over a two-year period, immigration officials at Gatwick stopped more than 300 expectant foreigners found to be in an “advanced stage of pregnancy [and] who evidently intend[ed] to access NHS maternity services”.
Gatwick has few flights from the countries producing the most health tourists, suggesting the total British figure will be far higher.
Another unpublicised report, Visitor and Migrant Use of the NHS in England: Observations from the Front Line, published this autumn, quotes extensively from staff frustrated at what they see as visitors playing the system. “Sometimes they will come back for their second or third baby,” an immigration officer said. “Sometimes they will quite blatantly say, ‘I’m coming because the care is better’. And once they are here, if they are assessed to a certain gestation, then we are stuck.”
An NHS overseas visitor officer said: “People coming into hospital from overseas know the rules better than the hospital staff”. Another said: “They lie through their teeth.”
Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust was last year owed £8.1 million in unpaid bills to health tourists over the past few years, according to freedom of information requests. The trust recovered £600,000 from health tourists in 2012 — only 30 per cent of the amount billed — according to a recent report compiled by Westminster city council. But even this may be a substantial underestimate, the report says, since up to two-thirds of health tourists in the NHS are never identified or issued with bills.
This suggests that health tourists could be using up to £6 million worth of services a year at these two hospitals alone, with pounds £5.4 million of that figure unrecovered. The trust said it took the problem “very seriously,” employing a dedicated team to identify and charge ineligible patients.
Many individual NHS “clinical commissioning groups”, or CCGs, the 211 local bodies that fund hospital trusts and GPs have also identified substantial “risks” to their finances from foreign visitors. West London and City & Hackney CCGs put it at up to £2.4 million each this year and Camden CCG at up to £5 million, though not all was for “fly-in, fly-out” health tourism.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “We have a National Health Service, not an international health service, and we must stamp out abuse of the system.”