Government Plans Crackdown On ‘Health Tourism’

Government plans crackdown on 'health tourism'

Non-EU visitors could be forced to take out health insurance to reduce levels of NHS cheating

James Meikle
Monday 20 July 2009 17.06 BST

Proposals to force visitors to the UK who are from outside Europe to take health insurance will be floated this autumn, as the government seeks to cut “health tourism” by foreign nationals trying to use free NHS services to which they are not entitled.

The Department of Health and the UK Border Agency are also going to look at ways in which immigration rules might be changed so that visitors owing significant debts for services they should have paid for upfront will face expulsion or be refused permission to enter again.

The extent of cheating the NHS is unknown but the government recovered more than 18m last year from people who were not entitled to a free service.

However, free access to some non-UK residents would be widened under other measures recommended by a review group, including to asylum seekers whose claims had been refused but who had officially recognised difficulties returning home, and unaccompanied children.

Joint DoH and Home Office proposals, to be published later this year, also raise the possibility of changing policy for non-UK residents with HIV. Although such people are offered free diagnosis and counselling, they have to pay for their treatment, a stance HIV charities and others have long criticised, arguing that many of those in this position are migrants with little access to financial resources.

Charges are already waived for other infectious diseases where control is considered vital for public health, but bringing HIV into this group, such as the compulsory insurance proposal, will be subject to further study even if backed in public consultation.

Britain has reciprocal agreements for treatment of UK nationals in health services in EU countries and those in the European Economic Area.

The Health minister Ann Keen said: “These changes will support a clearer and fairer system of access to free NHS services that will maintain the confidence of the public and prevent inappropriate access, while maintaining our commitment to human rights.

“These measures strike the right balance between controlled access, the protection and promotion of wider public health, and ensuring that the healthcare needs of the most vulnerable groups are protected.”

The Terrence Higgins Trust welcomed the review of policy on HIV and hoped there could be progress in that area. The Conservatives said the health insurance proposals should be considered as a “matter of urgency”.