Ministers have started a crackdown on health tourism by announcing a £1 million drive to reclaim outstanding debts from visitors.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has handed the seven-figure funding boost to the team tasked with recovering money from overseas visitors who have failed to pay for their healthcare while in the UK.
The Department for Health and Social Care said a “significant proportion” of visitor debt remains unpaid.
In the latest sign of Boris Johnson’s bid to woo Leave voters, Mr Hancock said it was “only fair we ask overseas visitors to pay their way”.
The Prime Minister has already announced that he plans to introduce an Australian-style points-based immigration system after Brexit, to ensure migrants coming to Britain are well-skilled.
Under current rules, those residing in the UK who are not British nationals or from the European Economic Area are required to pay a health fee when they apply for a visa to live temporarily in the UK.
But the Government said some visitors are circumventing the rules to exploit the NHS’s free-at-entry system.
In comments made to the Sunday Express and Mail on Sunday, Mr Hancock said: “Our beloved NHS is renowned around the world for providing high quality health care and it is able to do so thanks to the valuable contributions made by hardworking taxpayers – so it is only fair we ask overseas visitors to pay their way as well.
“This new drive will help recoup millions in unclaimed funds for our NHS which can go back into frontline patient care, so the NHS can be there for all of us when we need it most.”
A Government spokesman said that while “significant strides” had been made in ensuring non-UK NHS users were charged, “significant proportions of unpaid debt remain outstanding”.
The extra money from the Secretary of State will be used to accelerate the crackdown on health tourism as the minority administration pledged to “make sure every penny of taxpayers’ investment in the NHS benefits patients”.
New recruits will be added to the team that was established last year to support NHS trusts to “identify and recover” payments still due from oversea visitors.
The additional staff will help ensure the rules and exemptions involved when charging are understood and applied at hospitals across the country.
Despite charges for overseas visitors, there are exemptions in place to protect the most vulnerable – such as refugees, children and victims of modern slavery – to ensure urgent care is not withheld.
Jason Dorsett, chief finance officer at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said the recovery team’s assistance had lifted the “administrative burden” on his staff.
“We have had huge support from NHSI’s overseas visitors improvement team,” he said.
“We have learnt alternative ways to identify chargeable overseas patients. The implementation of digital tools has reduced the administrative burden on previous methods resulting in a rise of income and cash recovery.”
Pete Papworth, director of finance at the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, added: “We have seen a significant improvement in our identification of chargeable overseas patients and an increase in the associated income.”