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June 29, 2021

Advocacy groups joint statement for release of Inquiry Report on Patient Charging Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust

To comment on the release of the Oversight Panel’s report to Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust Board on Patient Charging today, Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign (SLHC) and Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network (LRMN) have come together to issue a joint statement on what needs to happen next.

We welcome the publication of the Oversight Panel’s report to Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust Board on Patient Charging today, after 20 months since the Oversight Panel was launched and then delayed by Covid-19.

The Oversight Panel Report highlights the harmful charging practices of Lewisham Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital, including its use of credit check firm Experian, to find ineligible patients to charge, and its pursuit of vulnerable and destitute patients’ debts.

Since 2013 and up until 2019, the Trust shared patient information with Experian to identify patients chargeable for NHS care. The partnership with the credit check firm was approved by NHS Improvement (part of NHS England), who in January 2019 promoted the partnership to eight trusts to carry out similar checks. Thanks in large part to this partnership, Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust referred 1,085 debts worth £5.4m to debt firms (that used bailiffs to collect debts) from 2016 to 2018, which was said to be the highest in England according to an investigation by The Guardian in 2019.

During our participation in the Oversight Panel, we heard from patients affected by the Trust’s practices, who described a lack of empathy and compassion from staff as they pursued debt from new mothers, homeless patients, and even some patients who were eligible for free care.

One patient described how their blood pressure rose upon hearing they were being charged, forcing the patient to extend their stay at the hospital. Another patient described how they fell to their knees and screamed as they received their invoice from the Trust while they were living in temporary accommodation.

The Oversight Panel Report reflects much of what we know about this harmful legislation which is putting patients’ lives at risk up and down the country. The immigration system is extremely complex, making it difficult for many to settle theirstatus and leaving them and their children open to charging despite living and working in the UK for many years.

The charging practices are a result of the hostile environment legislation which has had far reaching effects on universal access to NHS healthcare free at the point of need. Once considered a precious right, the right to healthcare is slowly being chipped away. Today, NHS trusts are being forced to become border guards, demanding documentation, raising invoices, denying treatment and sharing patient details with the Home Office, which only spreads fear and distrust in communities and has prevented many from seeking life-saving care.

We welcomed Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust’s initiation of a panel inquiry into the Trust’s charging practices. This was in response to questions in the press in September 2019, and from advocacy organisations, on their charging practices. The inquiry panel’s membership included patient advocates, campaigners, Trust staff and a leading national clinician.

We have participated in the panel in order to reduce the harm of the policy. But we remain completely opposed to the legislation that is part of the continuing Hostile Environment and which we believe will continue to harm patients in the future. Organisations such as ourselves and many others will continue to campaign to end these charges once and for all.

We recognise that NHS staff have to comply with this discriminatory and harmful legislation and we welcome measures the Trust has now taken to minimise the damage the policy causes. We are resolved to continue to work with Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, local organisations and patients to ensure that the damage done by this legislation is minimised until the day it is repealed.

We call on Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust to share the report and the recommendations with local authorities – including Lewisham Council of Sanctuary, and professional bodies, health unions and NHS trusts throughout England.

And we call for a public meeting in the near future with Lewisham Council, Borough of Sanctuary on these issues including an update on the Trust’s progress towards meeting the inquiry panel’s recommendations.”