31 January 2019

Overseas visitors are being urged to take out health insurance with a campaign launched today aimed at saving taxpayers $30 million annually in unpaid hospital bills.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the media campaign will target overseas visitors, and their families, who mistakenly believe that public hospital treatment is free and travel here without health insurance.

“If uninsured visitors fall ill or have a serious accident, they can end up in one of our public hospitals for weeks or even months, leaving taxpayers with a substantial unpaid bill,” Mr Hazzard said.

“While we recognise that overseas visitors are important to the NSW economy, health insurance is a very minor part of travel expenses and it is not at all unusual for countries to mandate health insurance for overseas visitors.

“I am also asking the Federal Government, through the Minister for Immigration, to assist in getting the message out loud and clear through immigration channels that travellers coming to this state should have adequate health insurance.

“No person needing urgent medical treatment will be turned away from a NSW public hospital, but this proposal will ensure taxpayers don’t wear the costs incurred by Medicare-ineligible patients not covered under a Reciprocal Health Care Agreement.”

It is not unusual for countries to require mandatory health insurance for visa holders – including, for example, in the 26 European countries in the “Schengen Area” (which have common entry and exit requirements, allowing travellers to move freely between them).

Standard visa-compliant cover for temporary workers in Australia costs about $120 per month. For tourists, the cost is even lower.

NSW public hospitals are not funded to treat Medicare-ineligible patients from countries not covered by reciprocal agreements.

About 16,000 Medicare-ineligible inpatients require hospitalisation each year in NSW. Of the $100 million invoiced to those patients or their insurers, about $70 million is paid.

The majority of the costs are for hospital accommodation charges. Other charges include providing prostheses for patients, radiology services and specialist fees.

Last October, NSW raised at the COAG Health Ministers meeting that health insurance become mandatory across all visa classes. An advisory council is currently looking at options.

Examples of unpaid bills by overseas visitors

Case study 1

Following a cardiac arrest, an overseas visitor received emergency department and inpatient care on two different occasions at NSW public hospitals. The visitor did not have travel/medical insurance and incurred bills of nearly $175,000.

Case study 2

A mother who travelled to Australia to visit family became very ill, and was in intensive care in a NSW public hospital for nearly six weeks. There was a misunderstanding about her travel insurance, and the family realised she was not covered. The resulting medical costs totalled more than $270,000.

Case study 3

An overseas visitor was rushed to hospital by ambulance, received emergency surgery at a NSW public hospital and was discharged five days later. “My brother is truly blessed to have his surgery in Australia as he most likely would have been misdiagnosed and not survived in (our home) country as it is a developing country.” The treatment costs amounted to $17,000.

Case study 4

Overseas visitor visiting family who suffered a cardiac arrest and requir ed emergency admission and treatment in a NSW public hospital. The visitor’s three months’ travel insurance had expired, with a bill of $24,000 to be paid.