Stop the NHS health tourism blame-game

9:04 am - October 23rd 2013

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by Giselle Green

When I broke my shoulder skiing in Italy last Christmas, I received excellent care at the local hospital, including a speedy x-ray and an overnight stay for observation (in case of head trauma) in my own room.

It wasn’t until after I was discharged and flying home that I realised my EHIC card, which had authorised my ‘free’ treatment, had expired. I was worried that this would mean I’d be liable for all the costs of my treatment – including the long ambulance ride from the top of a mountain.

I quickly renewed my card and hoped the hospital in Italy wouldn’t notice my treatment had occurred during the period when I wasn’t covered or wouldn’t bother to chase me up. But they did. ?As soon as they realised I didn’t have a valid EHIC card, they came after me, wanting me to pay for my treatment.

Luckily, a call to the EHIC office in Newcastle established that an out of date EHIC card didn’t actually matter, as long as I was a bona fide British national. Crisis – and huge bill – averted.

The point though is that the Italian hospital clearly deemed it worthwhile chasing me for payment when they thought I, rather than the UK government, was liable. Is the same happening in this country? How much money is the UK government claiming back from EU countries for treating EU nationals in our NHS , and how many UK hospitals or GPs go chasing after individuals who aren’t entitled to ‘free’ treatment? We need to see the figures.

There’s nothing wrong with our government trying to claw back money from other governments or individuals, but not if the costs of doing so exceed the amount of money clawed back. And nor if the time taken up by hospitals or doctors is diverted from patient care.

But there is everything wrong with our government trying to claim that ‘health tourists’ are costing the NHS £2 billion when researchers have admitted uncovering only “anecdotal” evidence of health tourism and “no statistically valid samples to generate estimates”.

Even the very term ‘health tourism’ is misleading. It is conveniently used to lump together all legal AND illegal visitors and migrants who happen to need the NHS while in the UK, as well as the actually tiny but hugely publicised proportion who come to this country with the intentional purpose of using our NHS.

Until we have concrete evidence of the scale of each of these different ?categories, as well as our success rate in getting reimbursed for NHS treatment, it’s hard to assess the scale of the problem or take effective action.

But one thing is certain: the government is being highly effective in pinning the blame on migrants and will continue to hype the catch-all ‘health tourism’ issue so it can impress UKIP voters with its tough stance.

?It also suits the government to divert attention away from its own chronic underfunding and creeping privatisation of our NHS. It’s time to give this government’s distasteful blame-game the cold shoulder.

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Reader comments

At some point people have to see through this blaming foreigners thing.

Of course, Tory policies are all being steered from the US. It’s them Koch brothers behind it all.

Tell you what. I would happily start up a company whose job it was to recover monies due to the NHS if I could could keep the proceeds.

All we need is an E111 check on the way in to a hospital or surgery.

Does that answer your question?

3. ex-Labour voter

This ‘health tourism’ nonsense was started by John Reid when he was health secretary.

One pupose behind it is to establish the idea of hospitals and clinics handling money so that the principle can be widened to include UK citizens.

The establishment of entitlement could also be used as a justification for ID cards as it was when Labour was in power.

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