The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is aiming to recover £500m a year by stopping what has become better known as ‘Health Tourism’, or in other words, people coming from abroad to take advantage of free NHS treatment.
However, some doctors are worried that – in the short term at least – this will place further strain on the NHS because of the rush to put it through.
The plan is to charge patients upfront for any non-urgent treatment on the NHS.
Dr Carl Rodgers, a leading London pathologist, said: “It’s not a question of lack of support for the government’s proposals – although to be honest, out of the £20billion health budget £500,000 is not a terrific saving. The main problem is that our systems are already overloaded, and to add a further level of bureaucracy at this time could cause more problems than it saves.”
From April this year, all hospitals will have to check to see if patients are eligible for free NHS treatment before they receive it.
The upfront charges have been introduced to stop patients receiving treatment and then not paying for it once the treatment has been carried out.
The Health Secretary said: “We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does.”
“So today we are announcing plans to change the law, which means those who aren’t eligible for free care will be asked to pay upfront for non-urgent treatment.”
“We aim to recover up to £500m a year by the middle of this Parliament – money that can then be reinvested in patient care.”
Dr Meirion Thomas – a leading practitioner – is quoted as saying, “It is essential that people are forced to present their passports, and not just their passports but their utility bills too.”
“The total cost of health tourism is £2billion a year. We just cannot afford this any longer. The healthcare system is in crisis. I have been saying this for a long time. This is long overdue.”
The British Medical Association said: “There is no detail as to how upfront charging will be introduced from scratch in just three months in an NHS already unable to cope with normal operations.”
“We need to be careful not to demonise overseas patients or sow chaos and confusion within the NHS.”
“So putting up more barriers is just going to make that worse. Not only is it inhumane, but if people leave their problems until it is an emergency and they go to A&E, that’s actually more expensive for the NHS.”
But the government does not agree, promising: “The NHS will not deny urgent and immediately necessary healthcare to those in need, regardless of payment”.