Some foreign patients seeking non urgent treatment in hospitals in the UK will be refused unless they pay up front from April this year, it has been announced.

The move is in response to overseas patients costing the country’s National Health Service millions of pounds in ‘free’ treatment. Many are supposed to pay but leave the country without doing so.

Now the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced that those eligible to pay, mostly patients from outside of the European Union, will be asked for payment in advance as hospitals will have a legal duty to charge them.

Emergency treatment will continue to be provided free and the foreign patients will then be invoiced afterwards. They will be told at the time that they will need to pay once their treatment is finished.

Hospitals are already supposed to charge patients living outside the European Economic Area for care such as hip operations or cataract removal, but if they have left the country it can be hard to collect the money.

Details of treatment given to visitors from EEA countries should be forwarded to the Department of Health so the costs can be recouped from their Governments.

‘We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does,’ said Hunt.

The NHS hopes to recover up to £500 million a year under the new system, but critics have said that the current system of recovering costs also needs to be reviewed. Indeed the Public Accounts Committee has described it as chaotic.

It will be up to individual hospital trusts to work out how best to check the eligibility of patients. It could mean that foreigners are asked for identification which shows how long they have been in the UK and proof of their address.

According to the Department of Health free NHS hospital treatment is provided on the basis of someone being ‘ordinarily resident’. It is not dependent upon nationality, payment of UK taxes, national insurance contributions, being registered with a GP, having an NHS number or owning property in the UK.

Anyone from outside of the European Economic Area must now pay a health surcharge when applying for a visa from staying in the UK for more than six months. People with indefinite leave to remain in the UK are not liable to pay the surcharge as they are regarded as ordinarily resident and entitled to free NHS healthcare on that basis.

Payment of the health surcharge entitles the payer to NHS-funded healthcare on the same basis as someone who is ordinarily resident, from the date their visa is granted and for as long as it remains valid. They are entitled to free NHS services, including NHS hospital care, except for services for which a UK ordinary resident must also pay, such as dentistry and prescriptions in England.