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Sunday, 26 August, 2001, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
NHS patients to be sent abroad
NHS patients will be allowed to go abroad for treatment, in a government attempt to reduce waiting lists.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn has confirmed he will change the law if necessary to allow patients to be sent to fellow EU countries.

Mr Milburn said: "In future primary care trusts will have the option of securing treatment for NHS patients in other European countries.

"Clearly that can only happen where that is what the patient wants, and after a full clinical assessment shows that it meets their needs.

There will be no question of sending patients abroad against their wishes

Alan Milburn
Health Secretary

"There will be no question of sending patients abroad against their wishes."

He said it would take several months for the changes to be put in place, and that the "overwhelming majority" of patients would continue to be treated in the UK.

And he insisted that the government's priority was still to cut waiting lists by investing in the NHS.

But Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, criticised the move as failing to address the real problems of the NHS.

"The problem with this policy is that it will take much-needed NHS cash out of the country, causing more shortages in the health service and to even lead to British nurses and doctors being recruited by the European hospitals to treat British patients."

European ruling

Mr Milburn's statement follows a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that patients facing "undue delay" in their home countries could seek treatment in other EU states.

This led to growing demands from UK patients having to wait months and even years for surgery, to be allowed to go abroad.

Mr Milburn said the law had previously prevented the NHS from contracting services abroad - but following the ruling, it seemed a "perfectly sensible thing to do."

Current law, which dates from 1977, permits UK-based NHS patients to seek treatment abroad only in cases of tuberculosis or in otherwise exceptional circumstances.

What happens if a patient comes back and four or five weeks later a problem sets in?

Dr George Rae, British Medical Association
Mr Milburn warned that it would probably take a change in the law to allow large numbers of patients from the UK to head to Europe - and this would take many months.

Dr George Rae of the British Medical Association said doctors would accept such a move in the short term, if all local possibilities had been exhausted.

But he pointed out that there were pitfalls.

"What happens if a patient comes back and four or five weeks later a problem sets in?" he said.

Meeting the cost

Mr Milburn said healthcare trusts will have to meet the cost of foreign treatment from their budgets.

The government has faced mounting criticism over waiting lists and delays to treatment.

In response, the health service was made a priority in the 2001 election.

The government aims that by 2005, NHS patients will have an average wait of seven weeks for an operation in UK hospitals.

The BBC's Helen Callaghan
"Other countries are already using overseas healthcare"
Health Secretary Alan Milburn
"We have someway to go to catch up with the rest of Europe"
See also:

05 Mar 01 | Health
Waiting lists jump 4,500
20 Feb 01 | Health
Hospitals 'cannot afford' targets
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