Cabinet Minister Paul Boateng was last night embroiled in an extraordinary row over payment for NHS treatment after a Ghanaian tribal chief left Britain without paying his hospital bills.
Mr Boateng and his wife, Janet, are facing difficult questions about their involvement in the case, in which the African visitor ran up fees of £70,000 for non-emergency treatment then left without settling his debt.
Mr Boateng, who has close links with Ghana, had gone to the hospital with his wife to visit the patient, a relative of the King of the Ashanti tribe. The couple are named as his contacts in Britain.
But when the hospital contacted the Boatengs to help trace the man and recoup the money, Mrs Boateng was unable to help track him down. The hospital, St Mary's in Paddington, London, then contacted the Department of Health – where Mr Boateng served as a Minister between 1997 and 1998 – for advice.
The DoH advised the hospital's auditors simply to write off the £70,000, leaving the bill to be picked up by taxpayers
The revelation will be hugely embarrassing for the Government as Ministers recently ordered a crackdown on 'health tourists' using the NHS for non-emergency treatment at taxpayers' expense.
As Chief Secretary to the Treasury and deputy to Chancellor Gordon Brown, flamboyant Mr Boateng is currently negotiating future budgets with a number of Ministries including the Department of Health. The Treasury has also insisted that NHS trusts should work harder to ensure taxpayers' money is properly spent.
Details of the extraordinary case at St Mary's were revealed at a hospital board meeting last month.
Last night the Health Department rejected any suggestion that the decision to write off the £70,000 debt was related to the involvement of Mr Boateng.
A spokeswoman said: 'There is no way that any third party or any connection with anyone else would make any impact on our advice or decision.
'It is absolutely not the case that we advised the hospital to write off the debt because of the Boatengs' involvement.'
Nonetheless, details of the case have angered members of the St Mary's NHS Trust.
The Ghanaian man, thought to be in his 50s or 60s, was admitted to St Mary's Hospital two years ago for emergency treatment after suffering a massive stroke.
NHS emergency care is free to all but once a patient is stabilised, people from countries outside the EU have to pay for their care.
The Ghanaian was told he would he would have to pay for his ongoing treatment. He was then given intensive long-term therapy for his stroke and ran up the substantial bill.
After he left the hospital without paying, St Mary's officials contacted the Boatengs. But Mrs Boateng, while being very helpful, was unable to trace the man, who is thought to be back with the Ashanti royal family.
Estimates show cases like this cost the NHS millions of pounds a year – and the £70,000, which the DoH told St Mary's to write off would have funded 14 heart by-pass operations.
A spokeswoman for St Mary's said it could not discuss details of a patient's care but she added: 'We take the issue of non-payment for NHS services to which overseas patients are not entitled very seriously and make every reasonable effort to recoup costs.
'Unfortunately, from time to time there are debts which the trust is forced to write off.
'On these we will often take Department of Health advice. When cases go above a certain amount, they have to be approved by the Trust Board. Two were last month.' Yesterday, at his home in Wembley, North-West London, Mr Boateng refused to comment personally but a spokesman for him said: 'the trust has operated according to the standard procedure for unpaid bills. Ministers had nothing to do with that process.
'Mr. and Mrs. Boateng did nothing more than respond to a constituent's request to visit a very sick man in hospital.
'They did not agree to have their names on any forms. They had nothing to do with writing off any bills.'
A Treasury source added that the Boatengs were not personal friends of the man concerned but that, as he was a senior member of the Ghanaian Ashanti tribe, they simply visited him in hospital to pay their respects.
The source added: 'The hospital contacted the family in connection with the bill and asked if they had any idea how they could get hold of him. They said, “We don't know, but we suggest you contact the Ashanti royal family. That's presumably whom he's now with.”
The Department of Health stressed that the only person responsible for paying back money owed to the NHS is the patient who received the care.
'Someone named on a form might be contacted to get a contact number for the patient,' said a spokeswoman. 'However, they do not have any responsibility for the debt or for tracing the patient.'
Mr Boateng, who was born in Britain but educated in his father's homeland, Ghana, takes his African heritage seriously. He has a cousin who is a tribal king and the Minister is hailed in his native land for his political success – such as becoming Britain's first black Cabinet Minister.
Mrs Janet Boateng is a well-known figure in London local government although as Health Minister, Mr Boateng disagreed with policies she promulgated as a Lambeth councillor barring white people from adopting black babies.
Editorial Comment The Mail on Sunday, 13 June 2004
Boateng must help to end this health scandal If anybody has good reason to know how much damage is done to the NHS by non-paying 'health tourists' from abroad it is Paul Boateng, a former Health Minister and now Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
He has seen the problem from both sides. He understands the unceasing, almost intolerable pressure on hospitals. And he also grasps that there is a limit on how much the British people can be asked to pay for them.
With taxes at their present high level, it is quite wrong to expect the public to subsidise the non-urgent medical treatment of visitors from abroad.
Mr Boateng is, therefore, specially anxious to ensure that these hard-earned resources should not be misused. He is particularly well placed to recognise Britain is not rich enough to act as a global health charity. He grasps better than anyone why the Government has ordered a special effort to reduce health tourism.
Now he has become personally involved in this sensitive issue. A patient from Ghana received free emergency treatment at an NHS hospital, followed by further non-emergency treatment worth £70,000, which he was warned in advance he would have to pay.
Then he returned to Ghana without meeting the costs of his treatment. The debt has now been written off, which means the cash will now be provided by UK taxpayers whether they like it or not.
The whole incident illustrates the urgent need for new and workable measures to make sure there is no repeat of this incident.
We hope Mr Boateng, armed with his knowledge of this particular case, will press for the necessary reforms to be implemented as soon as possible.