30 Jun 2013

Is Jeremy Hunt turning GPs into immigration police?

Measures to crackdown on health tourism, including a “registration and tracking” system and the possibility of charging for GP services, are to be announced by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Jeremy Hunt to announce crackdown on health tourism (picture: Getty)

Mr Hunt, who last week received a vote of no-confidence from the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association, will announce the proposed reforms, which are designed to prevent abuses of public services, on Wednesday.

The proposals include:

• A consultation on introducing a tracking system that would mean a patient’s NHS number is linked to their immigration status.

• Tightening up systems for claiming back the cost of treating European visitors from their home country.

• Ex-pats, who currently face paying for care if they live permanently overseas, will be given guaranteed access to free NHS healthcare, but only once they have paid 10 years of national insurance contributions.

• An audit will be launched into how much overseas patients and short-term residents cost the health service.

• Plans to charge for GP services for people not eligible for free care will be considered.

‘Scale of the problem’

Mr Hunt said: “No one expects health workers to become immigration guards and we want to work alongside doctors to bring about improvements, but I’m clear we must all work together to protect the NHS from costly abuse.

“We want a system that is fair for the British taxpayer by ensuring that foreign nationals pay for their NHS treatment.

“By looking at the scale of the problem and at where and how improvements can be made we will help ensure the NHS remains sustainable for many years to come.”

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Concerns have been raised that the reforms are a part of Conservative moves to counter the increase in popularity of Ukip, and the “scale of the problem” is up for some debate.

According to the Department of Health, pointing to a 2003 report, the cost of treating foreign nationals in NHS hospitals is between £50m and £200m a year.

GPs must not become a new ‘border agency’ in policing access to the NHS. Clare Gerada, Royal College of General Practitioners

Officially, £33m was spent on treating foreign nationals in hospitals in the 2011/2012 year. £21m of costs for treating these foreign nationals was recovered.

This means, according to the official figures, £12m was lost treating foreign nationals – approximately 0.01 per cent of the NHS’s £109bn annual budget. If we take the Department of Health’s largest estimate, the cost of treating foreign nationals is 0.18 per cent of the NHS budget.

The Department of Health argues that less than half of overseas visitors are identified.

‘New border agency’

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has warned against introducing reforms that could put doctors in an “invidious position of being the new border agency”.

Chairwoman Clare Gerada said: “GPs must not become a new ‘border agency’ in policing access to the NHS. GPs have a duty of care to all people seeking healthcare and should not be expected to turn people away when they are at their most vulnerable.

“It is important to protect individuals and public health and general practice must remain the main access to health care within the NHS.

“Whilst the health system must not be abused and we must bring an end to health tourism, it is important that we do not overestimate the problem and that GPs are not placed in the invidious position of being the new border agency.

“We hear that the consultation will have specific proposals and questions for clinicians and NHS organisations. The RCGP will be making clear its views and we encourage our colleagues across the health service to do the same.”

Earlier this week, doctors at a British Medical Association conference said it would be discriminatory to ask for documentation from patients who “happen to look foreign and talk funny”.