The NHS in Scotland is chasing more than £1.1 million in debts from overseas patients, sometimes amounting to tens of thousands of pounds in each case, figures show.
Data revealed from Freedom of Information requests show across Scotland NHS boards are at present trying to claw back £1,148,308 for the cost of treating foreign patients.
A number of boards revealed large debts ranging from about £3,000 to more than £78,000 for treating a single patient.
Politicians and campaigners called for action to make sure the NHS, already under pressure, was able to claim back the money it was owed.
In most areas, the amount of money owed to boards has increased in the last year, with some debts stretching back months or even years.
The Scotsman asked NHS boards to supply details of the amount of money it was seeking to claim back for treating patients from overseas and for details of the largest debts they are pursuing.
The NHS is obliged to provide emergency care in A&E for patients from outside of Scotland. But boards must try to recoup the cost of other treatment that might be needed, either from individuals, insurance companies or health services in other countries.
The figures revealed that at the time boards responded to the FOI request, a total of £1,148,308 was owed to the NHS in Scotland, compared with £712,182 a year ago. While in many cases the debts may not yet be overdue or are in the process of being paid, in others the NHS has been waiting months or years to get the money back.
The largest single debt was £78,487 – reported by NHS Lothian – and dated back to September last year. The board declined to reveal details of the case. In NHS Highland, a 2011 debt of £21,000 was reported for an Argentine patient undergoing haematology treatment.
NHS Ayrshire and Arran spent £10,583 treating a patient from Pakistan, dating back to November 2011. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said it had been chasing three debts totalling £131,512 for treating patients from the United States and China. However, these had recently been repaid.
Most boards reported an increase in the total owed to them by overseas patients in the last year. In Glasgow, the total jumped from £323,000 a year ago to £556,000 now, while in Highland it increased from almost £87,000 to £194,674.
While most cases involving overseas patients being treated by the NHS were genuine emergencies, concerns have been raised that “health tourists” are travelling to the UK in order to benefit from free treatment.
Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “While we can’t just turn emergency cases away because they happen to be from overseas, some kind of safeguard needs to be in place.
“It’s far from easy to demand money from an emergency patient, but many of these cases will have been pre-planned.
“The Scottish Government should consider chasing the embassies for this money.”
Margaret Watt, chair of the Scotland Patients Association, said foreign patients should be made to hand over their insurance documents or a bank card before they were given expensive treatment. “We have to tighten it up,” she said.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Boards can ask overseas visitors who are liable to pay charges to sign an undertaking that they will pay for their treatment before it is provided. For those who don’t pay, NHS Scotland Counter Fraud Services work with the UK Border Agency to refuse re-entry to the UK until they settle their outstanding bill.”