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BMA says foreign patient crackdown 'unworkable'

Government proposes doctors assess patients eligibility for free NHS care

Mark Gould

Monday, 06 February 2017

The BMA says government plans to crack down on abuse of the NHS with a system of upfront charges based on an assessment of a patient’s eligibility for NHS care will be impossible to implement.

Announcing the proposals Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: "We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS - as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does." Mr Hunt said the aim was to recover up to £500m a year by the middle of this Parliament to reinvest in the NHS.However he did not provide details of the practicalities of actually collecting fees.

Dr Mark Porter, the chair of the BMA council, said that it is right to ensure all patients are eligible for NHS care and that there is a working system to recoup the cost of treatment from patients not ordinarily resident in the UK. But he said that it was "hard to see" how these new proposals will operate in practice, especially as they are to implemented by law.

"There is no detail as to how upfront charging will be introduced from scratch in just three months in an NHS already unable to cope with normal operations. We need to be careful not to demonise overseas patients or sow chaos and confusion within the NHS. Doctors and nurses cannot be expected to arbitrarily decide whether a patient gets treatment or not," Dr Porter said.

He added that there is "patchy evidence" that this kind of system will achieve £500 million in savings and "even if it did, this would not in any way solve the enormous funding crisis in our health service that the government has for too long ignored".

Dr Porter said that ministers should not mislead the public into thinking this will result in a cash windfall for the NHS, "but must address the wider funding shortfall in the NHS, which has left it understaffed and struggling to care for its patients."

Hospitals are already supposed to charge patients living outside the European Economic Area for care such as hip operations or cataract removal, but this can be done by invoice, rather than upfront.

Details of treatment given to visitors from EEA countries should be forwarded to the Department of Health so the costs can be recouped from their governments.

But earlier last week, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said the system for recovering costs from foreign visitors was "chaotic". A report by the National Audit Office last October suggested that money raised next year would fall far short of this target.

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