Debt collectors were sent after local patients, including new mothers and the homeless, who were ineligible for free NHS care, an inquiry into harmful charging practices has reported.

The inquiry was set up by Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust after distressing practices of charging patients who are ineligible for free NHS treatment emerged. Whilst all emergency and Covid-19 treatment is free for all, refugees are not exempt for paying for other NHS healthcare.

Published last week, the inquiry revealed a lack of compassion from the south east London's trust and its staff towards patients and a lack of empathy with their situations, causing "significant distress" to those involved.

A spokesperson for Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust said “Over the last 18 months, we have worked closely with patient groups and partners to review our arrangements for charging patients who are not always eligible for free NHS treatment.

News Shopper: PAPA

"We’ve made a number of changes to ensure that we act in an empathetic, compassionate and supportive way towards these patients, and apologise for any instances in the past where this was not the case.”

A total of 39 recommendations were made by the report to improve the trust's NHS charging practices and have now been accepted by the trust, with a clear action of plan for improving patient information records and staff training put forward.

Some people spoken to in the inquiry reported being afraid to pursue treatment after their experiences, suggesting that the Trust’s practices endangered lives.

One patient said: “I have a friend who had a tumour in his head and was too afraid to get care - as he couldn’t afford the bill and didn’t want to be reported to the Home Office and forced into detention.

"In the end, we had to call an ambulance - things got too terrible.”

Another patient, interviewed by Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, said: “I was charged about £7,000. I was staying in one room accommodation and I couldn't even afford a payment plan to pay back the debt.

"There were threats that they were going to report me to the Home Office and I received calls every day. This was at the same time that my child was diagnosed with autism.”

The inquiry began following an investigation in 2019 which revealed that NHS hospitals were using private debt firms to chase treatment costs from the patients ineligible for free NHS care.

Bailiffs were used, and the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign received information under FOI revealing that maternity patients were being charged and refereed to debt collections.

Campaigners say that before this practice had ended due to public pressure, Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust had referred 1,085 debts worth £5.4 million to deb firms CCI and LRC from 2016 to 2018, the most of any practice in England.

In 2019, the trust decided to set up an independently-chaired panel to review its arrangements for identifying and charging ineligible patients, and on June 29, the panel presented a report to the trust's board.

The inquiry's report says they were assured the trust's current method of charging patients is in line with the law. However, there are historical instances where the trust's approach to charging patients had not been delivered in the

Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust has publicly apologised for any instances where patients were not treated with compassion.

The report's chair Peter Gluckman did also note that “the positive approach of the Trust to the panel has meant that already improvements are being made to processes, information to patients and training.”

Campaign groups Save Lewisham Hospital and Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network said they welcomed the measures the trust has now taken, although they say they will continue to campaign against the "discriminatory and harmful legislation" which sees some patients charged for healthcare.