Charging plans to end free care for ‘tourists’

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SO-CALLED “health tourists” will be charged 150 per cent of the cost of their NHS treatment under plans announced by the Government.

The Department of Health said the health service was currently “open to abuse” because visitors and migrants from outside the EU were able to get free care soon after they arrived in the UK.

Under the new plans, non-EU patients receiving a £100 procedure will be billed £150.

The NHS will be told to “clamp down” by identifying these patients more effectively so costs can be recovered.

Health trusts that fail to identify and bill “chargeable” patients could face financial sanctions, the Department said.

Doctors have raised concerns that the proposals may prove unworkable.

The move forms part of an extension of the NHS charging regime in England intended to deter health tourism while recouping up to £500m a year for the taxpayer.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “We have no problem with international visitors using the NHS as long as they pay for it – just as British families do through their taxes.

“These plans will help recoup up to £500m a year, making sure the NHS is better resourced and more sustainable at a time when doctors and nurses on the frontline are working very hard.”

The new measures are expected to come into force by next spring, with Ministers hoping that improved IT and administration systems will dramatically increase the numbers of patients identified as not being eligible for free care.

The Department of Health has agreed to pay trusts 125 per cent of the cost of treatment received by EU nationals, in the hope that they will be encouraged to report more cases. The Government will then be able to reclaim money back from other member states under reciprocal agreements already in force.

Dr Mark Porter, chairman of council at the British Medical Association, said: “Anyone accessing NHS services should be eligible to do so but a doctor’s duty is to treat the patient that’s in front of them, not to act as a border guard. Any plans to charge migrants and short-term visitors need to be practical, economic and efficient and must not jeopardise access to healthcare for those who need it.

“Without more detail, there are question marks over whether or not these proposals will be workable and if the NHS has the infrastructure and resources necessary to administrate a cost-effective charging system. Plans to fine hospitals who fail to recoup costs would see them punished twice over, to the detriment of other services.

“Above all, it’s vitally important that these proposals don’t have an impact on the care patients receive and that sick and vulnerable patients aren’t deterred from seeking necessary treatment, which can have a knock on effect on public health.”