The cost of treating foreign nationals through the NHS has raised eyebrows across the UK – some fear that ‘health tourism’ means millions is being spent on operations for non-British patients. But Seamus McDonnell looks at the true cost of treatment for travellers who fall ill on UK soil.
THE NHS is built on the principle of being free at the point of use, but for some travellers who fall ill while visiting the UK the cost can be heavy.
Non-British patients who do not have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) are charged for the care they receive in this country because they are not contributing to the UK through tax.
Since 2015, these individuals have paid around £1.3bn towards the cost of the NHS.
But for some, like Nigerian grandmother Grace Umoru, the price of this care can be a huge and unexpected burden.
Mrs Umoru came to Bolton in June to see her son-in-law Jamal Ohiobugie and her granddaughter after being treated by doctors in her home of Edo State for a recurring wound to her leg.
However, once arriving in the UK, Mr Ohiobugie realised that his mother’s injury was much worse than previously thought and she was rushed to the Royal Bolton Hospital for urgent treatment.
Doctors were able to save the limb and the 59-year-old is now recovering but the family have received a bill for £3,500 which they cannot afford.
“We just thought it was a small wound,” Mr Ohiobugie explained.
“I had not seen her for three years before this and people told me she had hurt herself but it wasn’t until she arrived that I realised it was actually a gaping wound.
“They did a magnificent job. The NHS is the best there is, my mother keeps singing their praises.”
Mrs Umoru has had recurring problems with her leg after she was involved in a horror bus crash in Nigeria decades ago, her son explained.
He said: “It was terrible, she was on a 16-seater bus in a crash and she was the only survivor. Her bones were shattered and she was being treated for a long time.
“This seemed like a sudden thing where that problem in her leg flared up.”
Mrs Umoru’s family assumed her recent injury was a long term result of the crash, but British doctors surmised that she was instead suffering with diabetes and had developed a blood clot.
“This wound that flared up was in the same effected area that was treated years ago, we thought that was probably related,” Mr Ohiobugie said.
“But, the doctors diagnosed her with diabetes and said she had a blood clot in her leg which caused the wound and made it difficult for healing to take place.”
This treatment is the latest in a string of health concerns for the family, who have spent recent years trying to nurse Mrs Umoru’s husband who needed specialist care following a botched cancer operation in Nigeria.
After the failed treatment, Mr Omuro was referred to doctors across the African country but without luck.
“We have medical bills from Nigeria,” his son said.
“My father passed away in 2015 and we were taking him to a lot of experts and a lot of hospitals to try and help him.
“He had prostate cancer but there was a botched operation carried out on him at the start and there was never a way past that.
“We were consulting doctors for so long but we couldn’t help him. We spent a lot of money because of that.”
Earlier this month, the new health and social care secretary Matt Hancock, announced that the government would be spending £1m to expand the NHS team in charge of recovering treatment costs.
NHS trusts must never withhold treatment from patients who require urgent healthcare, even if they cannot afford to pay. This includes any means care which cannot wait until a visitor’s departure from the UK.
The MP said the investment would help to recoup millions in “unclaimed funds” for to go back into frontline patient care.
However, for Mr Ohiobugie and his family, there is no question of not paying this bill despite their fincanicl troubles. He has now turned to campaigning site GoFundMe in the hope that charitable individuals will donate to help with his mother’s cause.
He has been told by the Home Office that if he can put together a £1,000 deposit is then authorities will work to create a plan to pay the money.
“We’re absolutely not saying that we shouldn’t pay it, I’m more than happy to pay because paying means that someone else gets that amount of care as well,” he said.
“But, I’ve looked at my finances and with a child, car, housing and all that it’s hard for me to pay something like this.”
Ultimately, in spite of the financial cost, Mr Ohiobugie was full of praise for NHS staff and spoke of his gratitude to them for helping his mother.
He said: “To be honest if I had to pay these kind of bills for my dad and he had been ok then I would be the happiest person in the world, so the bills are not so bad.”