Patients from outside Europe who use the NHS will be charged one-and-a-half times the cost of their treatment under government plans to claw back the expense of caring for migrants and visitors.
Announcing the policy yesterday the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said he had “no problem with international visitors using the NHS as long as they pay for it – just as British families do through their taxes”.
Tackling so-called ‘health tourism’ has formed a key part of the government’s efforts to appease widespread voter concerns about the pressures on public services resulting from immigration.
It is thought that the cost of treating foreign patients in the NHS is £2bn a year, with £300m due to health tourists – those who travel to the UK specifically for medical treatment.
According to the Department of Health the current system is “open to abuse” and the latest changes will help recover as much as £500m a year to then be reinvested into the NHS.
Visitors from outside the European Economic Area will have to pay 150% of the cost of their care, while temporary migrants in the country for more than six months – such as students – will face an additional health surcharge when they apply to enter the UK.
For example a hip replacement will cost a non-European patient £12,865 instead of £8,577; and cataract surgery will cost £2,800 rather than £1,867.
It comes on top of previously announced measures designed to recover the costs of treating EU citizens with European Health Insurance Cards by charging their home countries.
“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,” Hunt said.
Currently the UK attempts to claim 100% of the costs of treating EU and non-EU nationals when charges are applicable, but little is recovered because of the time and expense involved in identifying and billing patients.
Under the new system those NHS trusts that fail to identify and bill chargeable patients will be hit with fines.
The government said the NHS would gain £200m annually from the health surcharge on temporary migrants, £200m from charging Europeans’ home countries for treatment and £100m from identifying and recovering costs directly from non-EU visitors.
It added that the new regime would start next year and it expected to achieve these figure by the middle of the next parliament, in 2018. A clearer registration process and IT system would help lessen the burden on NHS staff, the department said.
However, Dr Mark Porter, chair of the British Medical Association, warned: “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.”