25/11/2018 23:30 GMT | Updated 26/11/2018 09:00 GMT

Exclusive: Government Accused Of 'Scaremongering' Over Migrant NHS Fraud

Few cases of EU insurance card abuse found despite claim of £19m-a-year loss.

The government has been accused of “scaremongering” for exaggerating the scale of NHS fraud committed by migrants, HuffPost UK can reveal.

Official government publications have stated fraud involving Europeans charging the NHS for care amounts to almost £19 million a year by mis-use of the European Health Insurance Card.

The blue card is issued by the NHS to British people to pay for emergency treatment in continental Europe.

The figure that led to a series of tabloid stories about foreigners exploiting “loopholes”, with the cost apparently reaching £200m over ten years.

But a Freedom of Information response from the Department of Health shows the NHS’s fraud division has only discovered potential seven cases of fraud in the last three years, and just two definite cases.

The Whitehall department said it has “not yet been established” the cost of the fraud. But a previous HuffPost UK FOI request revealed that five cases of fraud unearthed between 2010 and 2015 cost just £712.56.

The figures are in stark contrast to the NHS Counter Fraud Authority saying that the estimated cost of European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) fraud was £18.7m in 2015-16. 

PA Archive/PA Images

The Department of Health could not explain the discrepancy when approached.

But the £18.7m figure appears to have formed the centrepiece of tabloid investigations into the apparent ease with which the blue cards could be exploited.

Earlier this year, The Sun reported how it used fake national insurance numbers to get cards under the names Theresa May and Donald Trump, and how a whistleblower at the NHS Business Services Authority claimed one in five applications are fraudulent.

The newspaper reported that £200m of claims were thought to be fraudulent over ten years.

It quoted then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the then Health Secretary said he had asked officials to “speed up plans to crackdown on these scammers so we can protect our precious NHS”.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman also said it was “clearly unacceptable” that the EHIC scheme was open to abuse.

In 2015, an investigation by the Daily Mail claimed a “loophole” could be exploited allowing recent arrivals to the UK to obtain the card, and cited online forums where East Europeans boasted how easy it was to charge the UK for treatments in their homeland.

It argued the card could be used for a range of expenses, including a £47,000 liver transplant or “multiple pregnancies and births”.

NHS Counter Fraud Authority
A graphic from the NHS Counter Fraud Authority.

It is understood there are currently 27 million cards in circulation, and only 1% of holders ever make a claim. Of those, the NHS estimates only 2% are made in error or are fraudulent – which would mean around 5,400 cases. The Department of Health refused to comment.

The future of the scheme, which guarantees urgent medical treatment for Britons visiting the EU, is uncertain as the UK prepares to quit the bloc.

Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP and former health minister, said: “These figures show the government and some of the media have been deliberately exaggerating the extent of this problem.

“Instead of scaremongering like this, the government should be doing everything to ensure UK citizens visiting the continent and those who live there permanently will still enjoy health cover after March.

“Otherwise British tourists could face prohibitive private health insurance costs and the Brits living in the rest of the EU could be forced to pay or fall back on provision back home.”

Liberal Democrat Health spokesperson Judith Jolly said: “Clearly previously reported figures were bloated, scaremongering nonsense from irresponsible Brexiters who couldn’t tell their elbow from their chin if they were asked.

“European Health Insurance Cards protect us all when traveling across the EU and in need of health care. If UK citizens lose access to this incredibly important right, it will be the Brexit elite who are to be blamed.”