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Health tourism clampdown to end 'world health service'

Foreigners could be forced to pay for GP appointments under proposals ministers are considering to make sure the NHS does not end up “serving the health needs of the world”.

9:00PM GMT 14 Nov 2012

At the moment GPs must treat almost anybody who comes into their surgery.

This year new guidance was issued stipulating that “nationality is not relevant” when it comes to registration, and stating doctors had to register those from anywhere on the globe to “promote human rights and public health”.

Non-EU nationals are meant to pay for hospital care, but there is growing concern that the system of checking is lax and open to “abuse” by health tourists.

Those from EU countries are entitled to free NHS care under reciprocal arrangements.

Now Earl Howe, the health minister, has said he is considering extending charges for those not from the European Union, to cover GP appointments.

In a response to a parliamentary question, Lord Howe said: “Provision exists within primary legislation to allow the introduction of a system of NHS charges covering treatment for GP services.

‘As part of the department’s review of charging of overseas visitors for NHS care, consideration is being given to whether to extend charging for NHS treatment to primary care.’

He continued: “No decision has yet been taken on any option and this will also be subject to consultation across a number of related matters.”

According to figures obtained from NHS trusts, English hospital trusts last year wrote off £42 million that they had failed to claw back from foreign patients.

Last night Lord Howe made clear the Government’s intention to clamp down on health tourism, which has reached such a level that some nickname the NHS the ‘World Health Service’.

He said: “The NHS is not there to serve the health needs of the world and we will not tolerate abuse of the system.

"Last year we began a wholesale review of the current system to address concerns about access, cut down abuse and consider how best to ensure those who should pay do so."

A Department of Health said hospitals had a “legal duty” to recover charges made to foreign patients, and noted that the Government had recently amended immigration rules so those with NHS debts exceeding £1,000 could be refused a new visa.

However, any move to charge foreigners for GP appointments will be resisted by the British Medical Association.

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of its general practice committee, said: “We think the position should remain the same.

“We don’t believe there is widespread abuse and GPs are not an arm of the Border Agency.”

He said introducing fee arrangements would be extremely complicated “and end up causing a whole range of unintended consequences”.

He explained: “There is the potential that some people who need urgent care will not get it, and that will lead to quite serious consequences.

“You only need to turn away one person who subsequently dies from meningitis, and you will regret it for the rest of your career.”