A hospital trust’s chiefs have admitted getting it wrong when they used a credit score company to check whether its patients could have free treatment.
The decision by Lewisham and Greenwich Trust to hand over personal data to Experian was slammed by committee members in Lewisham on Tuesday.
Before the activity was exposed by the Health Service Journal, the trust had been using Experian to run UK checks for patients’ credit footprints to see if they were eligible for free treatment.
The NHS provides free healthcare to anyone who is a legal resident of the UK but is required by law to charge migrants since a coalition decision in 2015 to tackle ‘health tourism’.
If no digital footprint was found the trust would do further checks and in certain cases go on to to issue charges.
The information shared with Experian included a person’s name, address, date of birth, NHS number, email and phone number, and was run on every patient referred to the trust.
But people were unaware their data was being shared with the third party, sparking a backlash that has led to the trust setting up an independent inquiry and cutting ties with Experian.
Jim Lusby, director of integrated care and development at Lewisham and Greenwich Trust, spoke to the healthier communities select committee about the steps that had been taken in the wake of the scandal.
He said the reason the trust took the decision to check everyone was to do it in a “non-discriminatory” way.
“In hindsight it was not the right choice. In all honesty I struggle to defend the logic of this,” he told the committee.
He said the trust was “complying fully” with the investigation.
In a statement, the trust stressed that: “Experian do not carry out credit checks on Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust’s patients.
“No credit footprint is left on anyone’s credit report as a result of this process.”
The trust had a notice on its website about sharing some information with non-NHS organisations, but the inquiry is investigating whether patients were adequately notified about it.
The external review will look at all data sharing processes that are in place at the trust.
But councillors refused to let the trust off lightly, with one saying what it did was akin to “spying”.
The tension between Lewisham being a sanctuary borough and migrant charges was also raised at the meeting.
A representative of the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign described the move to charge migrants as “nasty, horrible”.
She told the committee: “At the heart of this issue is a real hostility towards migrants, particularly undocumented migrants who are deemed to have no right to be here but are escaping war or economic troubles.
“As a sanctuary borough we would encourage Lewisham and Greenwich Trust to put compassion, safeguarding, clinical priorities and professional standards at the forefront rather than an unbending interpretation of the law.”
The representative, also a nurse, stressed the blame was not on the trust, as “it’s a Government directive,” but urged it to be aware of “young, vulnerable pregnant women” who were reluctant to seek care for fear of being charged.
A recent Government report showed that three pregnant women died as a result of delays in seeking care, despite all three being eligible for free treatment.
“They’re scared and they don’t come back. That’s two lives at risk.
“As a pregnant woman you can have no symptoms and be in a life-threatening situation within minutes. Not coming back for care is really dangerous,” the campaign rep told the committee.
It also emerged debts would follow patients around even if they became legal in the country.