Japan to probe foreign tourists’ unpaid medical bills, promote travel insurance plans

Kyodo

The health ministry plans to probe cases of unpaid medical expenses charged to foreign tourists, calling for the use of travel insurance and looking at other ways to tackle the problem.

The ministry announced earlier this month that it would study the total value of unpaid bills and the number of cases at 7,000 hospitals across the country. The probe comes amid reports that foreign tourists who underwent treatment at hospitals in Osaka Prefecture, within a three-month period last year, left unpaid bills exceeding ¥15 million, according to the Kinki District Transport Bureau, which surveyed hospitals in the prefecture. About 30 percent of the surveyed institutions said they had not received payment in some cases.

The Japan Tourism Agency said roughly 30 percent of inbound tourists visit Japan without travel insurance covering medical costs, and that in some cases travelers do not possess a credit card to finalize transactions.

One hospital referred to a case of a foreign patient who received treatment in an intensive care unit and had no medical insurance. The patient had no credit card and paid the equivalent of $500 in cash but failed to cover the full expense upon returning home.

The report was based on responses from 147 hospitals in Osaka Prefecture concerning patients treated between May and July 2016. Of 66 hospitals that treated foreign travelers during the period, 20 reported unpaid cases. The agency said that 27 of 375 foreign travelers left the country without paying their bills, including one case worth about ¥8 million. The unpaid bills totaled ¥15.47 million. Given that only some hospitals in the area responded to the survey, the number of cases may be much higher.

The agency also said that 87 percent of surveyed medical institutions expressed concern that they might fail in collecting payments from foreign travelers.

In the case of Hokkaido, seven percent of hospitals that saw international travelers in the past three years have been left with unpaid bills. Some hospitals eager to prevent the problem have prepared a credit payment system and provided interpreters. But only 35 percent of hospitals in the prefecture accept credit cards.

The number of foreign visitors nearly tripled to a record 24.04 million in 2016 from 8.61 million in 2010 — and the figure is expected to continue its jump.

According to a survey by the tourism agency, the number of foreign travelers who need medical care while in Japan hovers around 4 percent, meaning that 2,600 required some treatment each day last year.

The government is aiming for 40 million tourists by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic Games, with a target of 60 million set for 2030.

To deal with the problem, insurance companies are cooperating with the tourism agency, offering new plans covering medical costs available for purchase upon arrival in Japan.

Toshiki Mano, a professor at Tama University, said hospital operators need special services such as interpreter assistance to prevent medical bills from being left unpaid.

The government could also set up a system with other countries to help hospitals collect payments for emergency treatment more easily, he added.

The average amount of unpaid medical bills, including those from Japanese patients, stood at ¥50.18 million per hospital at the end of fiscal 2014, up 15.7 percent from the year before, according to a survey by the ministry.