Unpaid medical bills top $125,000

EMMA BEER
Last updated 10:13 13/11/2012
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ETHICAL QUESTION: Ineligibility did not stop hospitals from treating acute patients.

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Patients who are ineligible for free health care in Nelson and Marlborough racked up nearly $600,000 in bills during the last financial year - including nearly $11,000 for an acute nosebleed.

And $125,836 of those costs remain unpaid, including the bill for the nosebleed.

Nelson Marlborough District Health Board figures show that $588,575 of costs were incurred in treating ineligible patients in 2011-12.

More was spent on treatments last year than in the previous two financial years - 2010-11 incurred $273,073, and 2009-10 $324,798.

According to the Health Ministry website, eligible persons have a right to be considered for publicly funded health or disability services, free or subsidised.

DHB general manager of corporate services Nick Lanigan said the definition of eligibility was complex. "Generally, a person who has citizenship, permanent residence or a work permit of more than two years is eligible for publicly funded health services."

However, ineligibility did not stop hospitals from treating acute patients, he said.

"We will always provide acute treatment for people whether they are eligible or not. This is treatment generally without which a person would die, or without which the person's condition could deteriorate to become life-threatening or significantly debilitating."

The most expensive unpaid bill is $33,424 for treating a patient who suffered respiratory arrest in November and December last year. This treatment was the second-most expensive overall, and the patient was ineligible because they were living in New Zealand unlawfully.

Another patient was treated for epistaxis, or acute nosebleed, in March, for which the cost of treatment was $10,923. The bill is still unpaid, and no details of the treatment were available.

The most expensive treatment was $34,638 for acute pancreatitis in January and February. In that case, the money was paid. The patient was ineligible because they either held no work visa or had a work visa of less than two years.

Invoices were sent to all the patients.

"If a person is too unwell to make an informed decision about whether they want further treatment, and a clinician determines that treatment is necessary to prevent loss of life or significant disability, treatment is provided,"  Lanigan said.

"If the person is not eligible for that treatment to be publicly funded, they would be asked to pay afterwards."

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He said the DHB would only write off debts if the cost of collection outweighed the potential amount to be received.

In some cases, a debt collection agency would be used.

"‘New Zealanders who travel overseas are in the same position - either they take out insurance or risk having to pay for hospital expenses," Lanigan said.

- The Nelson Mail

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