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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 11:58 GMT
Health tourists could get refund
Paola Buonadonna
Paola Buonadonna
The Politics Show

Operating theatre

British so called "health-tourists" would have the costs of their treatment refunded by the NHS under a proposal being presented to the European Commission on 19 December 2007.

The legislation, which is expected to be agreed by EU Health Ministers and the European Parliament in 2008, intends to balance the freedom of movement of patients inside the EU with the protection of member states' different health systems.

It comes in the wake of a number of verdicts by the European Court of Justice in favour of EU citizens who had sued their health authority to be reimbursed for treatment obtained abroad after they had faced long delays at home.

Operating theatre

Wider scope expected

The Directive is expected to specify that the cost of treatment abroad cannot exceed what it would have cost in Britain and that patient must shoulder the additional travel expenses.

But a recent draft of the document seen by the BBC's Politics Show suggests the directive's scope could be wider than expected.

As long as the consultant in charge has agreed there is a need for a procedure, the patient should be free to go abroad for it whatever their reasons.

Accurate figures for health tourism are hard to come by.

But, according to the Department of Health, 280 people were able to get hospital procedures abroad on the NHS in the year 2005/06, having obtained permission to go abroad by their local health authority.

Andrew Lansley MP
Why should patients not be coming here rather than go to the continent?
Andrew Lansley MP

But figures collected by the medical tourism industry indicate that up to 9,000 people a year could be travelling abroad for necessary surgery.

Among the reasons for going abroad most commonly cited by respondents were the lengthy waiting lists and fear of hospital acquired infections.

Tory support

Andrew Lansley MP, the Shadow Health Secretary, welcomed the proposed legislation as a first step towards a free market in health services.

He said that the Directive should be seen as an opportunity for the NHS to shape up in order to meet the challenge posed by competition.

"We are a country which has some of best doctors and nurses and medical researchers in the world," said Mr Lansley, "why should patients not be coming here rather than go to the continent?

"Why should the traffic be leaving Britain rather than coming to Britain?"

Warning

But while more choice is attractive to some patients and to the Conservatives, the British Medical Association warned of the potentially destabilising effect of the legislation for the NHS if too many people opted out of the system.

Kevin Barron MP
If that was to happen in terms of people wanting to go over the channel as it were that could potentially be catastrophic
Kevin Barron MP

And the Labour chair of the Health Select Committee, Kevin Barron MP, also expressed caution.

"Choice does destabilise [the system] a little bit now," he said, "and whilst I support it, there's no guarantee anymore than some parts of your local district general hospital will be there in 10 or 15 years time if people choose to go to the hospital just up the road.

"If that was to happen in terms of people wanting to go over the channel as it were that could potentially be catastrophic."

In a statement to the BBC, the Department of Health said it expected the new directive to simply codify the existing case law from the European Court of Justice.

The statement continued: "This case law already gives entitlements for patients from other EU countries to travel to the UK in order to receive treatment, and we are not aware of great numbers of people using these entitlements".

This is the last programme of the autumn run - we return on Sunday 13 January 2008 - so may we all wish you a very Happy Christmas and Peaceful New Year.

The Politics Show, with Jon Sopel on Sunday 09 December at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.

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