NHS patients will now be asked to prove their eligibility to receive state-funded medical treatment under new plans designed to curb medical tourism and save the health service much needed funds.
Going forward, medical staff will routinely ask patients for utility bills, bank statements and proof of employment in an attempt to identify who should be paying for treatment. Migrants and visitors to the UK will be charged upfront for the cost of their treatment (currently set at 150% of the cost to providers), as the health service looks to combat the £2 billion lost every year to so-called “health tourists”.
Ministers said the changes were necessary to safeguard “a cherished national institution that is paid for by British taxpayers”.
However, confusion remains as to how the new rules should be applied, with a survey showing that eight in 10 NHS professionals are unable to make a crucial distinction when it comes to the eligibility for free treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and individuals whose application for asylum had been rejected.
Critics have said the new plans could cause chaos in the NHS, with the British Medical Association (BMA) warning that the scheme lacked clarity and could even end up costing the health service more money.
The Royal College of GPs warned that the new plans could have an adverse effect on GP surgeries, increasing the workload of family doctors at a time when they already find themselves overstretched.
‘Considerable judgment required’
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and Lucinda Hiam, GP and health adviser at the humanitarian aid charity Doctors of the World, said the challenges faced by staff in (a) identifying who should and shouldn’t get free treatment and (b) whether their condition requires “immediately necessary” or “urgent” treatment put the health of patients at risk.
“Clearly, this requires considerable judgment, based on what will often be incomplete information. “Yet, if they get this wrong, they face considerable risks,” they said.
In addition, they said that vulnerable people, in particular, could be put at risk by the changes. For example, homeless individuals and those with mental health issues could struggle to prove their eligibility for treatment, even though they are entitled to it.
The pair also argued that there’s a risk – albeit a small one but a risk nonetheless – of migrants with contagious diseases being refused treatment, treated late or declined vaccinations under the new rules – a situation that “could pose a direct threat to UK population health”.
Speaking about the changes, health minister James O’Shaughnessy said: “We are clear that some vulnerable groups are exempt from charging and the NHS will never withhold urgent and immediately necessary treatment”.
Are the so-called ‘Health Medical Tourists’ a risk to the future of the NHS and will the new eligibility process work for those that are eligible and in need of urgent treatment?
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