Trusts are set to miss a £500m savings target set by the Government, on charges claimed back from overseas patients, a report has found.
Money recouped from these charges, which have applied to international patients since 2015, is projected to fall short of the £500m a year ministers claimed could be recovered by the NHS by 2017/18, according to a study by the NAO (National Audit Office).
Commenting on the report’s findings, BMA council chair Mark Porter said ministers had a responsibility to ensure levies on foreign patients were applied fairly and effectively.
He said: ‘While those accessing NHS services should be eligible to do so, systems to charge migrants and short-term visitors need to be practical, economic and efficient and must not jeopardise access to healthcare for those who need it.
‘A doctor’s duty is to treat the patient in front of them, not to act as a border guard.
‘It’s vitally important that any charging systems do not prevent patients receiving necessary care. Sick and vulnerable patients must not be deterred from seeking necessary treatment, otherwise there may be serious consequences for their health and that of the public in general.’
The NAO’s report found that savings made from recovered costs had increased from around £73m in 2012/13 to £289m in 2015/16.
The report found the bulk of the total funds recovered in 2015/16 came from an immigration surcharge for accessing NHS services, introduced in April 2015.
The charge applies to the majority of students and temporary migrants from outside of the EEA (European Economic Area), and covers treatments previously available free of charge.
Despite the increase, the report predicts that based on current trends the NHS will have recovered around £346m by 2017/18 – more than £150m short of the original target.
It added that regulations around charging remained complex, requiring doctors and other healthcare staff often having to make tough judgement calls over a patient’s billing eligibility.
It said: ‘Trusts face a particular challenge in recovering the cost of treating patients, mainly from outside the EEA, who are personally liable for the cost of their treatment.
‘While there is substantial variation between trusts, we estimate that on average they recover only around half of the amounts owed by these patients, weakening the incentive trusts have to pursue patients whose treatment commissioners would otherwise pay for.’
Read the NAO’s report
Read more from Tim Tonkin and follow on Twitter.