The government’s “deeply flawed” policy of charging migrant women for maternity care is putting lives at risk, a national charity has warned.
Maternity Action has called on the government to scrap charges for maternity care, which can land vulnerable women with bills of at least £7,000.
The charity, which launched a judicial review of the policy in October claiming it was discriminatory, spoke out after The Independent revealed three women died from complications after delaying treatment because of fears they might be charged.
Maternity Action, which advises 200 women a year via its helpline, said the policy needed to be immediately suspended in the wake of concerns it may have played a role in the women’s deaths.
It has also called on the Department of Health and Social Care to carry out an independent review of the impact of the regulations.
Last year, the government imposed mandatory requirements on the NHS to seek the recovery of costs from overseas visitors and migrants who were not eligible for free healthcare.
Some services, such as emergency care and maternity, are never withheld from patients but in the case of maternity, women can be charged later for their treatment.
Last week, a national report into the deaths of women who had given birth identified the cases of three women who thought they would be charged but who were eligible for free care.
Ros Bragg, the director of Maternity Action, said: “These charges must be suspended before any more harm can be done.
“Sadly, the findings come as no surprise to those of us who work directly with women affected by NHS charges. We know from the women who call the Maternity Action advice line that many cannot afford to feed themselves and their children, let alone pay £7,000 or more for their maternity care.
“Many vulnerable women are avoiding maternity care as they are fearful of incurring debts they cannot pay.”
She added: “The harsh impact of charging is not resolved by telling women to attend for care. Women with unpaid NHS debts are reported to the Home Office, making it much more difficult to regularise their immigration status and escape destitution.
“Women are left to weigh up the costs of attending maternity care against the health risks of avoiding care. This is a deeply flawed policy.”
The government said it was right that overseas visitors contribute to the costs of their care, but added it was working with the NHS to ensure women are not discouraged from seeking care.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The NHS will never refuse maternity care to anyone that needs it.
“We recently invested £1m to expand a team of NHS experts to help hospitals understand cost-recovery rules and exemptions and apply them consistently, making clear that urgent treatment – including all maternity services – should never be withheld.”