International Health Service

Daily Mail (London), February 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

International Health Service


Byline: SUE REID

Patients refused lifesaving breast cancer drugs and denied treatment for Alzheimer's.

But one group is immune to NHS cutbacks - the growing army of overseas mothers coming here to give birth.

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THE chubby, dark-eyed baby girl is pretty with curly hair. She sits up with the help of a special pillow in her cot on a ward for very sick children at a London teaching hospital. Doctors and nurses know the child well and have grown fond of her. Some call her by the pet name of Lally. They have been collecting money to buy her balloons and a present for her second birthday.

After all, this child knows no other home but the NHS hospital. She was born there prematurely in February 2004, when her mother was just 24 weeks pregnant. Since then, the child has been cared for around the clock by specialist nurses and some of the country's best paediatricians.

Lally's life has been saved by a talented medical team. But because of her tragically early birth, she will need expert care for years. At night, she is put on a ventilator to make sure she doesn't ail while she sleeps.

Regularly, the tube in her throat is checked by nurses to help her breath.

No one knows when this beautiful, chronically ill child will leave hospital.

It may be a month away. By then the bill for caring for her will have cost the NHS more than [pounds sterling]1 million.

For the first 12 months of her life, Lally was in a paediatric intensive care bed which, according to official government figures, costs up to [pounds sterling]1,960 a day at a top NHS hospital in Central London.

As her health improved, she moved to a high-dependency ward, where the daily bill is [pounds sterling]760.

What a testament to the unstinting care the NHS can, at its best, lavish on the weakest of our society. Why, then, are so many doctors and nurses treating such babies becoming disheartened and angry?

The answer goes to the heart of the debate over so-called health tourism, which is costing millions of pounds a year at a time when lifesaving drugs such as Herceptin to treat breast cancer and [pounds sterling]2.50a-day medicines for Alzheimer's patients are being rationed because of NHS debts.

Lally's mother came to this country on a temporary work visa and has successfully applied to the Home Office to remain in the country indefinitely.

Citing her daughter's ill-health - and with the help of lawyers well versed in Human Rights legislation - she has argued that there is nowhere else apart from the United Kingdom which can provide the sophisticated medical help that Lally needs. And this smartly dressed woman of 39 is probably right.

Certainly, the Caribbean island, where she and Lally's 48-year-old father came from, would struggle to provide the free health care their daughter is now receiving with few, if any, questions asked.

Of course, no one is blaming Lally for the huge bill that accompanies her care.

But her story is no longer unique. In theory, only those who have lived here for a year are entitled to free NHS care.

But I can reveal that the Government recently issued a directive to all English hospitals telling them to admit pregnant women from wherever they arrive in the world without pressing for payment.

Unsurprisingly, many on the NHS frontline fear this sends an invitation to health tourists seeking free treatment at a moment when the service is shutting wards, sacking medical staff and denying drugs to people who have paid into the system through taxes and National Insurance all their working lives.

Meanwhile, despite the NHS receiving record funding of [pounds sterling]76.4 billion for this financial year, hospitals and primary care trusts are running up huge debts.

Even the most dedicated medical staff are asking two questions: Is the NHS having to care for too many patients, many of whom have no real right to our State medical services? …

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