Asylum seekers suffering from cancer are having chemotherapy stopped mid-way through amid confusion over their eligibility for treatment on the NHS, charities have warned.
New rules introduced in October last year require NHS staff in England to assess a person’s eligibility for non-urgent treatment based on their immigration status – and to charge them up front if they don’t have the right documentation.
The measures were designed to reduce so-called health tourism, whereby visitors travel to Britain to receive free health care.
But confusion among frontline staff about who is eligible means some asylum seekers who have a right to free healthcare face huge bills, in some cases, mid-way through vital treatment.
Two charities told HuffPost UK they have seen an increase in those seeking asylum being wrongly charged for treatment.
One woman seeking asylum is said to have been wrongly charged thousands of pounds for maternity care. Another man allegedly had life-saving cancer treatment halted mid-course. He is said to have feared he would die before lawyers and campaigners successfully fought the ruling.
Dr Lucinda Hiam, of the healthcare charity Doctors of the World, said: “We’ve seen asylum seekers refused cancer care and refused cardiac surgery and it’s not until we get involved, or a legal team gets involved, that [the decision] is overturned.
“One person had his cancer treatment stopped and he just felt like he was going to die, we and the lawyers stepped in and got that re-started.
“People are being wrongly charged and wrongly refused. Even with the Department for Health guidance, people who should be treated aren’t.”
Hiam also raised concerns that, despite guidelines outlining that treatment decisions should always be taken by doctors, this was not always happening, meaning it was not always the case that a clinician assesses a patient to see if their illness requires urgent medical treatment.
She said: “What we’ve seen in some of the cases in which we are involved is that nobody is making a clinical decision about whether their care is urgent but it is being refused [solely] on the basis of their [immigration] status, which is wrong.”
Refugee Action, which advocates for asylum seekers in the UK, said it had seen an increase in people being wrongly charged for treatment before they receive it.
Asylum seekers currently receive £37.75 a week to pay for non-housing costs, yet charges for some NHS treatments can be many thousands of pounds.
Mariam Kemple-Hardy, from Refugee Action, said: “It’s simply inhumane for people seeking asylum to be denied access to the healthcare they are entitled to.”
“These cases are truly shocking. Our asylum services have reported seeing a number of people who are wrongly being asked to pay for treatment and care. We are supporting people to challenge these charges.
“Refugees and people seeking asylum are entitled to free NHS care, but many do not understand their rights. The Department of Health has a responsibility to ensure that NHS staff are aware of this and not wrongly applying charges.”
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our guidance is absolutely clear that urgent and immediately necessary care for overseas visitors should never be withheld or delayed and that asylum seekers and their dependents are always exempt from charging.
“Decisions around treatment can only be made by clinicians based on the details of each individual case.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 28 May to correct a reference to free urgent treatment. If a person’s treatment is considered urgent by a clinician, costs are recovered after such treatment from those ineligible for free NHS care. Urgent treatment is not free for all as initially stated.