The UK government is finally taking steps to recover money spent by the NHS (National Health Service) on “health tourists,” according to UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
An independent study on migrant access to NHS healthcare in England, conducted for the Department of Health, says the NHS could save £500 million a year if it charged foreign nationals a £200 levy to use its services. This is in response to the growing trend of health tourism, i.e. people who specifically travel to the UK to receive free care for pre-existing conditions.
The NHS has some of the most generous rules in the world; at present, only hospitals are required to charge for services, although their emergency care is free. According to the study, health tourists, including pregnant women who come to the UK just prior to giving birth, cost the NHS at least £70m annually. It’s estimated that a further £388 million could be recovered by charging those patients who should be liable to pay, but otherwise slip through the cracks.
£200 surcharge for migrants
The figures from the study were released just ahead of the government’s second reading of the Immigration Bill, which aims to introduce stricter measures to stop abuse of public services.
A key measure in the bill will see temporary migrants pay for access to the NHS through an annual NHS surcharge of £150 for foreign students and £200 for temporary migrants. According to the NHS, this will generate £200m a year. A new cost recovery unit would also work to recoup money owed by other governments for treating foreign nationals.
“NHS not an international service”
Health Minister Jeremy Hunt told Sky News that the NHS is not an ‘international’ service. “I have absolutely no problem at all with foreigners and international visitors using the NHS, but if they are not contributing to it through their taxes they should make a fair contribution in another way,” said Hunt.
Opposition to surcharge
The announcement has been met with mixed reactions. Leading surgeon Professor J Meirion warns that the £200 surcharge would create the “best travel insurance on the planet.” He further called the move a “disaster” and said that allowing visitors and students to pay £150 or £200 at the border for access to health services would simply attract more health tourists.
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as well as York University conducted their own research, which seems to contradict that of the Department of Health. According to this study, so called “health tourists” spent an estimated £219m on hotels, restaurants, shopping and transport in the UK. The research also found that there are more people leaving the UK to seek medical treatment abroad than arriving for treatment.
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