Bill Could Target Foreigners

Bill could target foreigners

The Press
Thursday, 04 September 2008

Foreigners fleecing millions of dollars from the health system could be caught under a proposed data-matching law.

Patients who were ineligible for free healthcare notched bills of more than $1 million at the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) in the past financial year, of which over $250,000 was written off as bad debts.

The Ministry of Health said it did not collate national bad-debt figures, but it is believed the total annual amount spent on foreigners claiming care was at least $3m.

In July, the Wellington District Health Board said overseas patients had run up more than $1.6m in hospital bills in the past two years, of which almost half remained unpaid.

The Immigration Bill before Parliament would allow health boards to check immigration records to see whether the patient was eligible for free healthcare.

CDHB business development manager Richard Hamilton said the $1m spent on non-eligible patients, mostly foreigners, was just “the tip of the iceberg”.

The real amount was likely to be at least double that, he said.

Bad debts were accrued largely through surgery or the treatment of serious diseases, he said.

The board was working to identify people who got healthcare when they should not and recover money from them, Hamilton said.

“What it boils down to is that a patient who is ineligible is using a service which could benefit someone from Canterbury,” he said.

Tracking down ineligible patients would involve staff asking more questions about a person's situation, he said.

Private detectives had been used to trace people who had illegally received free healthcare, he said.

Some foreigners who got free healthcare were sponsored by companies to stay in New Zealand, and these employers could be held accountable for debts, Hamilton said.

The board was considering lodging bad-debt notices against some foreigners so Customs could stop them as they tried to leave the country.

Over the past decade, a handful of patients had each notched bills of more than $100,000, some of which would never be recovered, Hamilton said.

The Ministry of Health this month expressed concern that foreign visitors were using New Zealand relatives' names to get medical treatment after two women in Auckland were caught doing that to avoid paying hospital fees.

The ministry said it was aware of the issue but had not received official complaints from health boards that it was a widespread problem.

Boards did their best to check people's entitlement to funded services, a ministry spokeswoman said.