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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 February 2007, 08:56 GMT
New threat to NHS finances...
Paola Buonadonna
The Politics Show

European Court of Human Rights
The European Court has approved claims for health costs

The Politics Show can reveal that the European Union regulation of so-called "health tourism" could threaten the financial basis of the National Health Service.

The Department of Health and the British Medical Association are concerned that new rules defining "undue delay" could lead to some taxpayers subsidising others to go abroad and get treated faster, while the squeeze on resources makes their own wait even longer.

Health tourism

EU citizens are already free to travel, work or study in another EU country.

Shopping for health services could be next, and increasingly patients have demanded their own national health services repay the costs of their treatment abroad.

Several recent European Court cases have found in favour of these patients, like Yvonne Watt, who travelled to France for a hip replacement operation.

In May 2006, the Court ruled she should receive a refund from the NHS because of the delay she faced if she chose to have her operation in Britain.

Now the European Commission's consultation exercise, the first stage towards developing new rules, has just closed.

And while its proposals aren't due to be presented to member states until April, already some people are ringing alarm bells.

Patients' safety

Will there be a flood of claims for health care costs now?

The BMA has told the Politics Show it fears patients' safety could be put at risk unless professional medical standards are tightened up across Europe as part of the same exercise.

Dr. Edwin Borman, the BMA representative on the talks, told the Politics Show that while the BMA is absolutely in favour of allowing people to seek the best treatment they can, travelling abroad if necessary.

He said: "Patients want to be treated safely, you want to be treated effectively, and you want to be treated in good time and unless the British government provides for British patients who are going to be treated abroad in that way and holds the Commission into account then it hasn't done its job fully."

The Department of Health disagrees, suggesting that the standards of the country the patient travels to should apply.

Undue delay

Operating theatre
This operating theatre could be in the UK, or France, or Spain...

One concern the BMA and the Department of Health share, however, is the potential threat to NHS finances from a legal definition of "undue delay".

Dr Borman noted: "While waiting times in the UK have come down dramatically in the last five years, our waiting times still are longer than in many other European countries and the reason for that is that there's been a trade-off between having free access to health care against having to wait longer for treatment.

"Clearly if the Commission were to bring a one size fits all definition of 'undue' delay that could wreak havoc with the NHS system and cause huge financial problems."

But Commission officials have told the Politics Show that one of the major reasons to have an EU directive at all is to define "undue delay". And this could lead to a row between countries with free health care provision (such as Great Britain) and countries which rely more on insurance.

If you are you thinking of going to another EU country for treatment or have already done so, the Politics Show is keen to hear from you, to include your experience in future coverage of this issue.

Please e-mail us through the e-mail form below┐

Join Jon Sopel and guests for the Politics Show Sunday 04 February 2007 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.

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