Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

'Health tourists' face crackdown under new proposals

Hospital ward
Some 5m a year in health bills go unpaid each year by overseas visitors

Visitors to the UK could be required to hold health insurance before they can enter the country, the government says.

The move is an attempt to crack down on "health tourists" who come for treatment but fail to pay for it.

In a separate immigration review, the UK could also refuse entry to foreigners owing money for health care.

Ministers said this would stop people from overseas taking advantage, but the Tories said Labour had allowed the problem to develop in the first place.

The NHS in England is paid more than £25m a year by overseas visitors, but writes off another £5m in unpaid bills.

Department of Health figures show that 50% of outstanding bills are not paid within a year of treatment and about 5% of overseas patients had three or more unpaid invoices. One reportedly had 18.

'Taking advantage'

If the Department of Health's proposals are approved, NHS bosses would provide a list of migrants with treatment debts to immigration officials from later this year.

They would then be turned away by the UK Border Agency if they try to re-enter the country without settling their debt.

The department said that while the unpaid debts were small in relation to overall NHS spending, it was "important that we maximise recovery, not least to discourage deliberate abuse by a small minority of visitors".

We need a proper assessment of the proposal... to determine the impact on tourism
Norman Lamb
Lib Dem health spokesman

The proposals would not cover visitors from the European Economic Area and other countries with whom the UK has reciprocal health agreements.

Ministers have also revealed plans to give free healthcare - at a cost of £9m a year - to thousands of failed asylum seekers if there are "recognised barriers" to them returning home.

But free care will not be given to refugees who refuse to leave after their claims are rejected.

Immigration minister Phil Woolas said: "The government believes that those who take advantage of our hospitality should respect that hospitality or face consequences."

He added: "For the first time the UK's immigration rules would state explicitly that a record of failing to discharge payment obligations to the National Health Service will impact upon a person's ability to enter and stay in this country."

Health minister Mike O'Brien said: "Whilst the NHS has a duty to any person whose life or long-term health is at immediate risk, we cannot afford to be an international health service, providing free treatment for all."

But shadow immigration minister Damian Green said the government's "open-door immigration policy" had placed "significant burdens" on the NHS.

He added: "In July last year, the government announced a review of access to the NHS by foreign nationals, but never published the results. This is unacceptable and cynical."

'Good on paper'

Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb said: "Labour has repeatedly claimed it's going to get tough with health tourism but it's completely failed so far.

"We need a proper assessment of the proposal to force foreign visitors to get health insurance to determine the impact on tourism."

He added: "Cutting NHS treatment for failed asylum seekers may sound good on paper, but are ministers seriously saying they're happy for someone with TB to continue living in the community without treatment?"

The Department of Health consultation also proposes relaxing the rules on treatment for UK residents who travel abroad for extended periods.

Currently, they risk losing their entitlements after three months overseas, but under new plans this would be extended to six.

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