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Last Updated: Monday, 29 December, 2003, 17:31 GMT
Medics balk at NHS tourism plan
"Health tourism" could be costing the taxpayer millions
Foreigners who use the National Health Service will have to pay for their treatment in advance, Health Secretary John Reid has said.

The crackdown was necessary to stop the service being "taken for a ride," Mr Reid told the Sunday Telegraph.

The abuse of the service is estimated to cost the UK 200 million a year.

However, doctors have expressed concerns about having to discriminate against patients on the grounds of nationality.

Mr Reid said: "If there are bona fide tourists dropping ill in the street, of course we will do what we have to do, but we are not mugs.

"There is a difference between being civilised and being taken for a ride."

Details of the new measures will be announced by health minister John Hutton on Tuesday, following a 14-week consultation with local health services.

The proposals were also attacked by Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow, who told BBC News Online that asking for up-front payment would put lives at risk and turn doctors into debt collectors.

Business travellers

Hospitals have complained that a steady stream of foreign nationals are arriving in the UK with serious medical conditions that need urgent treatment.

They include heavily pregnant women who arrive in the country on a holiday visa.

In some cases, they say business travellers to the UK are even bringing their partners and children specifically to get them treated for free.

There is a difference between being civilised and being taken for a ride
John Reid

Currently, doctors are already expected to ask foreign nationals to prove they are entitled to NHS benefits.

However, it appears many hospitals are not doing so and the British Medical Association has said it is often difficult for a doctor to ask for proof when someone presents themselves with a serious illness.

Mr Reid said: "People are coming here on a so-called business trip and suddenly discovering that there is something wrong with them.

"We need to make sure that business travellers and their dependants will no longer receive free treatment if they fall ill or are injured on a trip to the UK, because there is widespread misuse."

Asylum seekers

Mr Reid said the crackdown would also target failed asylum seekers who were "effectively stealing treatment from the people of this country".

"I am not talking about emergency treatment, matters of life and death.

"I am talking about routine treatment that causes the people of this country, who are legally and morally entitled to it, to have to wait longer."

The Liberal Democrats said the government was "looking at the wrong policy for the wrong problem".

"The government really doesn't have the evidence to prove there really is a problem with health tourism," said Mr Burstow.

He said the proposals would also encourage people to question the right of Britain's ethnic minorities to receive treatment when they presented themselves at hospitals.

The government was backed by David Hinchliffe, the Labour chairman of the Commons Health Select Committee, who said there was no doubt the NHS was being abused by a minority of visitors to the UK.

"It's a problem, and the government is right to face up to it."

Mr Hinchliffe said measures were needed to ensure that visitors from non-EU countries had appropriate health insurance when entering the UK.

But he said it would be wrong to deny treatment to people in acute need.

Doctors' response

Dr Edwin Borman, chairman of the British Medical Association's international committee, said there was little definitive evidence that foreign visitors presented a significant problem to the NHS.

"The medical profession is not willing to become a state agent, and police a system which, in any way, might interfere with what we see as an ethical patient-doctor relationship.

"I have a responsibility to any patient to treat their illness, and care for them as much as is possible.

"It is entirely appropriate that the citizens of the UK are treated to the very best extent possible by the NHS

"But we also have an obligation to treat people who are visiting this country, and who quite reasonably from time to time might have an emergency.

"We would not want to see ministers in any way impinge on that relationship with our patients."

Tories target 'health tourism'
01 Jun 03  |  Politics
Treating tourists 'crippling' NHS
14 Jul 03  |  Cornwall
Crackdown on 'health tourists'
29 Jul 03  |  Health

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