I wish to speak to amendment 37, which has my support, as do the new clauses in this group. I would like to say a few words about one particular aspect of NHS charging, which is in relation to maternity care. Under the current charging rules, non-urgent care must be paid for in advance, but “urgent” or “immediately necessary” care must be provided whether or not a person can pay in advance. The guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care and the statutory regulations make it clear that maternity care is to be regarded as immediately necessary, so it must not be refused or delayed if a woman is unable to pay in advance, although she will still be charged for it. However, because of confusion about the charging regime and misapplication of the rules, pregnant women who are not UK nationals have already been denied maternity care, told that they must pay in advance of receiving treatment or told that their appointments may be cancelled if they fail to pay. Extending the charging regime to EU nationals, including pregnant women, would multiply such injustices in a system that is already making serious mistakes.
Charges for NHS maternity care start at approximately £4,000 and can rise into the tens of thousands for more complex care for women or additional care for new babies. Those charges are significantly higher than what NHS trusts would normally be paid for providing such care, because the regulations require them to charge 150% of the relevant NHS tariff. In practice, the rules mean that some hospitals have sent bills demanding immediate payment of thousands of pounds from vulnerable post-partum women. Women have received letters threatening referral to debt collectors, local counter-fraud specialists or the Home Office; in one appalling case, a woman was issued a bill of almost £5,000 for treatment following a miscarriage.
Research by the charity Maternity Action has found that the charging regime has resulted in women avoiding essential antenatal care and missing appointments because they fear incurring a debt that they cannot pay or being reported to the Home Office. That includes women with health conditions that require effective management to protect the health of both mother and baby. Antenatal care is intended to pick up and treat problems as early as possible, increasing the chances of a safe and healthy birth. Missing midwifery appointments means that high blood pressure and gestational diabetes are left untreated, the window for HIV prophylaxis is missed and minor infections are allowed to develop into serious health conditions.
Migrant women who are entitled to free NHS care are also affected by charging policies. Maternity Action regularly encounters women, including EEA citizens, who have been wrongly assessed as chargeable and have received bills for their care. In some cases, the women affected by the rules have children and spouses who are British citizens. Surely that was not the intention of the policy.
In December, the royal colleges issued a joint statement calling on the Department to suspend the charging regulations pending a full independent review of their impact on individual and public health. The Royal College of Midwives has expressed
“enormous concern…that vulnerable women are missing out on essential…care.”
Given the harm that charging for NHS maternity care is already causing to women’s physical and mental health, the fact that many women are simply unable to repay bills, the clear lack of regard being given to children’s best interests, the risks to public health and the potential for the charging regime to be extended to all EEA nationals, is it not time to consider the arguments for immediately suspending all NHS charging for maternity care?