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The Mails health tourism-story

By Adam Barnett

April 22 2015

In its delight in reporting that hospitals could ask to see patients’ passports before treatment, the Daily Mail has reached for its trusty dog-whistle.

The second page of its front page story today on the government’s plans has a picture of a black woman with her five newborn babies, who are quintuplets. The picture is of Bimbo Ayelabola, 33, who was born in Nigeria and came to Britain in 2011 to receive care during her pregnancy, at a cost of around £35,000 per child, according to the Mail. 

If you were wondering why the newspaper has re-published a four-year-old story about a one-off and unusual case alongside its splash, you need only imagine what the Mail hopes its readers will think when they look at this picture: a foreigner, coming to this country, having several children at taxpayers’ expense.

In fact, the picture is of a piece with the story itself, as covered by several newspapers. For one thing, the government’s claim that so-called ‘health tourism’ costs the NHS £2 billion a year, is false.

Number-crunchers at the Guardian and Channel 4 went through the relevant Department of Health reports in 2013 and found the true cost to be more like £300 million at the most.

The £2 billion figure includes £1.4 billion for ‘non-permanent residents’ – that is, people who live, work and pay taxes here, and are entitled to free healthcare like everyone else – and £0.3 billion for ‘irregular migrants’, including failed asylum seekers, over-stayers and illegal migrants. The remaining estimate of £300 million is for people coming here specifically for healthcare – the so-called ‘health tourists’.

If you think grouping all these people together is a bit shady, you would be right. But the papers have repeated the £2 billion figure today anyway.

It’s a commonplace to say how much the NHS relies on foreign-born workers. But there is even some evidence that the service benefits financially from use by people from abroad. A 2013 study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and York University found that hospitals received millions of pounds from private patients from outside the UK for treatment.

When you put the figures next to those of a recent Sunday Times report on the cost of unpaid treatment for ‘health tourists’ from 2010 to 2015, they paint a very different picture.

Great Ormond Street Hospital reported that 83 per cent of its private patient income in 2010/11 was not from UK patients – that’s over £20 million of a total £25 million. For Birmingham Children’s Hospital it was 88 per cent.

To take the Times’s top victim of health tourism, King’s College Hospital in London, over half of its private patient income was from non-UK patients – nearly £8 million in 2010/11 alone. That’s double the yearly average ‘cost’ to the NHS reported by the Times in unpaid bills. (In fact, it’s probably higher, as that’s the average for four years, and the Times figure includes the first months of 2015.)

The study adds that “medical tourists to the UK contribute around £219 million in additional ‘tourism spending’ to the UK economy per year” on hotels and other spending.

Aside from the obvious dangers of unfair application of the new passport check, with the DoH having to train staff so they don’t pick on people who ‘look foreign’, the policy itself is born of a xenophobic inflation of data for political ends. The 150 per cent charges for patients from outside Europe will likely scare away people with genuine health needs (as well as greatly increase the bill – and therefore the ‘cost’ – of unpaid fees), which one suspects is the desired outcome.

To address an often-heard refrain: no, it’s not necessarily racist to want to curb the abuse of public health services, whether by people here or from abroad. But the use of misleading data, outlying cases, and photos like this one to justify withholding medical treatment to ‘foreigners’, is much harder to absolve from the charge.

Originally published by Left Foot Forward 

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