Doctors Warn Of Risks Of Restricting NHS Treatment For Failed Asylum Seekers

Doctors warn of risks of restricting NHS treatment for failed asylum seekers

Failed asylum seekers could spread infectious disease and pose a “significant” public health risk if their access to the NHS is restricted, doctors will warn today.

By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor
Last Updated: 7:17AM GMT 11 Nov 2008

Thousands of people who are denied shelter in the UK each year may have illnesses that pose a health risk but they would go “undiagnosed and untreated” if restriction to free healthcare goes too far, the British Medical Association will say.

It will also warn such a move could prove more expensive in the long run because more treatment will be necessary if an illness has been allowed to progress.

The body, which represents almost 140,000 doctors, will say medical staff should not have to act as immigration officers and check patients' status. They will also attack the Government for a lack of evidence of the impact on healthcare from failed asylum seekers.

The comments are in response to plans in the Immigration and Citizenship bill to simplify the law around access to benefits and services.

Failed asylum seekers are currently not entitled to free NHS care but a High Court ruling in April paved the way for them to take advantage if they cannot be immediately returned home for one reason or another.

The human rights ruling paved the way for up to 11,000 failed asylum seekers still in the UK because they cannot be sent home to access free primary health care.

Last year some 16,800 people were refused asylum.

The BMA will appear before the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee today, which is reviewing the bill.

In written evidence, the organisation warns: “A significant concern is that imposing minimum time periods to have been spent in the UK before an individual can be considered to be ordinarily resident will restrict access to services for individuals who may at some point need medical intervention for conditions that pose a public health risk if left undiagnosed and untreated.”

It adds: “There are considerable public health concerns in restricting access to health services for failed asylum seekers. The BMA would like to highlight that restricting access to health services may lead to diseases with significant public health implications such as infectious diseases going undiagnosed and untreated.

“In addition to the impact on public health, the BMA has concerns over whether restricting access to services is the most practical option economically. In some circumstances restricting access to healthcare may lead to individuals requiring far more intensive and costly treatment as their condition will deteriorate as a result of them being unable to access services at an early stage.

“This in turn will place an additional burden on health services. One example of this relates to the failure to manage insulin-dependent diabetes. It would make greater economic sense to ensure that the system in place is flexible enough to enable early intervention before health conditions reach the stage where they require expensive emergency treatment or a protracted period of medical intervention.”

The BMA also warns against health policy being “dictated by an immigration control framework” and says doctors should not be required to take on the role of immigration officers and assess eligibility for services.

But the document concludes: “There are also concerns that there is a lack of evidence relating to the financial impact on the health system of failed asylum seekers accessing healthcare. Although problems with non-payment for treatment by overseas visitors have been well publicised, there is no clear evidence to demonstrate the extent to which failed asylum seekers may have contributed to this predicament.”

A Department of Health spokesman said: “On 7 March 2007, the Home Office published Enforcing the rules: A strategy to ensure and enforce compliance with our immigration laws, which commits the Department of Health and the Home Office jointly to undertake a review of access to the NHS by foreign nationals. The review is being finalised and a public consultation will then follow.

“Any new rules will take into account the preventative role of NHS primary care, the role it plays in protecting the wider public health as well as international law and humanitarian principles. The review is committed to ensuring that any new rules ensure value for money, fairness to UK citizens and foreign nationals and can be implemented effectively.”