HEALTH tourists have left Scottish NHS boards with a bill of almost £1 million over the past four years, it has emerged.
Foreign patients who receive treatment at Scottish hospitals for a range of non-emergency issues are charged for using the service.
Figures obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show many of them leave the country and never pay their health debts – which are too costly for health boards to pursue.
Eleven of Scotland’s health boards are owed a total of £982,813 for treating patients who live overseas.
Patients treated in Scotland’s hospitals and health centres came from a range of countries including Brazil, Pakistan, Venezuela, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the US. Their treatments included eye tests, heart care and maternity and gynaecology services.
The figures have prompted calls for a pre-payment system to be set up which would see patients who are not resident in the UK and who receive non-emergency care on the NHS to pay up-front.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw described the situation as an “abuse” of the health service which showed Scotland was becoming “a centre for health tourism”.
He said: “Something has to be introduced to clamp down on this happening, because once someone is treated and disappears back to their own country, it is nigh-on impossible to get the money owed back.
“That could include pre-payment, a deposit system or a credit card authorisation.
“If someone is visiting Scotland and requires emergency medical attention we can’t stop them at the door to demand cash. But it should not be beyond the wit of our health service to ascertain one’s ability to pay before receiving elective treatment.
“Our NHS may be the envy of the world, but that does not mean the world can have a piece without paying its way.
“Taxpayers work hard to help fund our hospitals, and we should not let this be abused by those who are taking advantage of our health service.”
The MSP said the information revealed by the country’s health boards showed in many of the cases the procedures had been “pre-planned” and did not involve any emergency care. Among the examples of money owed were a Canadian who received more than £3,000 worth of cardiology care in Fife and an American who had five separate stays and gave birth at the cost of £4,500 in Lanarkshire.
The figures also revealed a Brazilian owes NHS Orkney more than £3,000 for renal care and an Italian ran up £1,000 in gynaecology bills in Edinburgh.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “NHS Boards have a duty to take action to recover the cost of treatment and this can include asking overseas visitors to sign an undertaking that they will pay for their treatment before it is provided.”
She said boards had to report non-payers to NHS Scotland’s Counter Fraud Services who would work with UK Border Agency. Non-payers can be refused re-entry to the UK until they settle bills.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde had the highest unpaid bills at £364,538 since 2008-9 – £239,703 of that is for unpaid bills last year alone. The figures showed the costs were for treatment including diabetes care, rehabilitation, plastic surgery and orthopaedics.
People from 17 different countries were treated by the board. The highest bill was £86,000 for patients from the China followed by £76,000 for people visiting from the US.
Only two boards, Shetland and Orkney, had no outstanding bills.