British army veteran faces £27,000 NHS hospital bill

Fiji-born man told he is not eligible for free treatment after brain tumour surgery

A Commonwealth-born veteran, who served for more than a decade in the British army including tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, has been told he must pay more than £27,000 for NHS hospital bills after an emergency operation to remove a brain tumour.

Hospital staff have classified Taitusi Ratucaucau, 49, as an overseas patient, and therefore ineligible for free NHS care. He joined the British army in 2001 and has been continuously in the UK since being discharged from the military in 2011, living here with his wife and three daughters, and paying tax and national insurance.

Ratucaucau, originally from Fiji, is recovering in a London hospital after major brain surgery on 30 April. He is meant to be focusing on his physical rehabilitation but said he was spending most of his time worrying about how he would meet the demand for payment, given that he has no savings, is the main breadwinner for his family and is currently too unwell to work. The bill is increasing by around £1,500 for every day he remains an inpatient.

Ratucaucau is one of a group of Commonwealth-born military veterans who launched legal action against the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence earlier this year, over an alleged systemic failure to advise them of the need to apply for settlement in the UK on discharge and for failing to assist them with complex, expensive immigration rules.

This has left them categorised as illegal immigrants, unable to access free NHS treatment, facing unemployment and homelessness and fearing deportation. They are unable to regularise their status owing to the cost and complexity of the immigration system.

Since the issue was highlighted in the Guardian in March, more than 70 other veterans have come forward and military charities say hundreds more are similarly affected. Coverage of their situation triggered public sympathy and widespread anger that Commonwealth ex-servicemen should need to pay thousands of pounds in visa fees to remain in the country they risked their lives for.

Foreign national soldiers have the right to remain in the UK after leaving the army if they have served for at least four years, but claimants say they were discharged without being given clear guidance about how to regularise their immigration status. Most assumed the immigration process was automatic.

On discharge from the army, Ratucaucau, who also served in Belize and the Falkland Islands, was given an “exemplary” conduct record and described as a “very capable, loyal and trustworthy individual” with an “impeccable work ethic”. He said he was given unclear advice, and was later unable to afford the cost of visas for himself, his wife and two older daughters, 13 and nine – who were born while the family were living in British military bases in Germany – which at that time was around £5,000. Now he would need to pay £2,389 for each applicant, a total of £9,556 for the whole family to secure indefinite leave to remain here. His youngest daughter, eight, was born in the UK and does not need a visa.

Taitusi Ratucaucau in hospital.
Taitusi Ratucaucau in hospital. Photograph: Taitusi Ratucaucau

He was unable to save enough to regularise his status during post-army jobs as a maintenance worker on the railways. More recently he has been working for a security company, which has also not paid enough to cover visas for his whole family.

The mounting cost of his unexpected hospitalisation has left him distraught. “Where can I get money to pay for this treatment when I’m in hospital?” he asked, speaking by telephone from the rehabilitation ward. He said he had felt proud to be accepted into the British army, after officers visited Fiji to sign up new recruits in 2001. “I gave up years of my life to fight for this country. We can’t believe that the Home Office could be like this. I feel sad and angry.”

In a witness statement given to his lawyer, Vinita Templeton of Duncan Lewis, before he became ill, he said: “As I had served for 10 years, I expected that I would be able to remain in the UK after being discharged … I feel that the position I have had to endure since being discharged from the army is very unfair. The army let me down badly by not giving me enough notice about steps that needed to be taken in order for me and my family to remain in the UK, and also about the cost of the Home Office applications. I feel that the fees that the Home Office charge foreign national veterans for the right to remain is extremely unfair, considering the committed service we have given to this country.”

Three years ago, Home Office staff visited his wife at home while he was at work, took away her passport temporarily and told her that the family needed to make applications for leave to remain. The visit alarmed the whole family. “I cannot afford the Home Office fee that needs to be paid to regularise my status in the UK … I am constantly worried and I fear that my family could face forcible removal from the UK. This would be terrible for my family, especially because my children only know life in the UK,” he said.

Templeton said the state of immigration limbo had caused ex-servicemen “unimaginable suffering”. When Ratucaucau became unwell, friends encouraged him to seek medical assistance, but he repeatedly refused. “All our clients are afraid that seeking medical will result in the Home Office being notified of their situation, and in being faced with medical bills that they cannot afford,” Templeton said.

They are waiting for a response from the Ministry of Defence, expected this week. In the interim, lawyers have requested that the veterans should be granted permission to work and to seek recourse to public funds, including the right to access healthcare services.

Esita Tuimanu, the co-founder of Commonwealth Neglected Veterans, which has been supporting Ratucaucau during his hospitalisation, said: “It breaks my heart to see someone who has served for more than 10 years being treated like this. They have sacrificed so much of their life for Queen and country; they risked so much in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t think these men and women should ever be left in this position.”

She said that medical staff had been very sympathetic but were unable to do anything about the bill. “He is really worried. He got stressed out when we discussed it on Wednesday,” she said, adding that Ratucaucau would have to pay the bill somehow because unpaid NHS debts triggered an automatic refusal in any visa application.

The Home Office stamped the passports of foreign recruits on joining the military with a note stating that they were exempt from immigration restrictions, and that they were “not subject to any condition or limitation on the period of permitted stay in the UK”. The stamps were not marked with an expiry date but nevertheless became invalid on discharge; veterans say they were not informed. When they discovered, with the tightening of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” regulations after 2012, that they were in breach of immigration rules, they struggled to resolve their difficulties, mainly because of the cost of visas.

The armed forces employ about 4,500 Commonwealth citizens; recruitment in Commonwealth countries has recently been stepped up “to build on the long-held links Britain’s military has with Commonwealth countries”, according to the MoD.

A government spokesperson said it would not comment on the individual case because of ongoing legal proceedings, but added: “The service of all members of the armed forces, including Commonwealth nationals, is highly valued.”

• This article was amended on 21 May 2020. It was hospital staff who classified Taitusi Ratucaucau as an overseas patient, not medical staff as an earlier version stated.


Amelia Gentleman

The GuardianTramp

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