Published: 28/07/2005, Volume II5, No. 5966 Page 13

Pregnant asylum seekers must not be denied access to NHS antenatal care if they cannot afford to pay, the health secretary has stressed.

Although it remains up to trusts to decide to what extent they pursue payment for care, overseas case managers must not refuse pregnant women treatment. This is because antenatal care is classed 'immediately necessary' under regulations that came into force last year, said Ms Hewitt.

She said the rules 'could do with spelling out' after she was challenged by Maternity Alliance director Nancy Platts following the health secretary's lecture at the Fabian Society last week.

Women were being denied treatment at some trusts because they could not afford to pay bills of up to£2,000 and were resorting to attending hospital for the first time as an emergency delivery, Ms Platts said.

Ms Hewitt said she had examined the new regulations with 'officials in considerable detail' and was 'pleased to discover' that ante-natal care was classed as 'immediately necessary treatment and therefore should never be denied by an NHS hospital to somebody who doesn't qualify for free treatment'.

The clarification was welcomed by the Maternity Alliance, which said its research had found that increasing numbers of women were being denied treatment. Policy officer Jenny North told HSJ that it would put pressure on the government to ensure overseas managers played by the rules and stopped denying 'essential care for women'.