British doctors have revealed how European health tourists exploit “incredibly lax” guidelines governing full access to expensive complex therapy from the National Health Service (NHS).
The Government says it has cracked down on health tourists, but doctors in the NHS say recently amended guidelines potentially allow up to 500 million European citizens immediate access to NHS treatments if they claim they are UK residents on the day they arrive in Britain.
Consultants in the NHS have told The Mail that health tourists need only say they are “ordinarily resident” in the UK, quoting a friend or relative’s address, to qualify for treatment. Previously there was a requirement for EU citizens to prove they had been living in Britain for at least six months, but the new ‘Guidance on implementing the overseas visitor hospital charging regulations 2015’ simply states: “It is perfectly possible to be ordinarily resident here from the day of arrival.”
If they can show they are in the UK lawfully “for settled purposes as part of the regular order of their life for the time being, whether of short or long duration” they qualify for NHS treatment, even those who claim to be “ordinarily resident” both in their home country and in Britain. In other words, people need not even prove they live here full-time to be able to receive all the NHS has to offer.
Those with EU passports who hold a European Health Insurance Card are entitled to free NHS urgent and emergency care, but establishing ordinary residence — a definition said to be so wide it is easy to manipulate — grants access to everything, up to and including expensive IVF fertility treatment.
According to official data from 2013 — before the guidelines changed — foreign visitors and short-term migrants cost the NHS up to £2 billion a year, with “health tourists” accounting for up £300 million of that.
Senior doctors say the new rules mean patients are arriving at hospitals straight from the airport demanding treatment for serious long-term conditions. In one example a Spaniard received £200,000-work of cancer surgery and drugs after he said he lived at a friend’s UK address. In the same way, expatriate Britons who have neither paid taxes nor lived in Britain for decades also qualify for immediate treatment.
A London cancer consultant said: “The issue of health tourism, where patients come for urgent but not emergency treatment, is increasing. My team alone treats at least one patient a week in this category and if you multiply that across the whole NHS, that’s an awful lot of people.”
Other European countries operate quite differently, requiring British citizens to pay tax or be enrolled in an insurance scheme in order to access routine health services. Even though the Department of Health was responsible for the guidelines, in December it recognised there is a problem to be addressed. A spokeswoman said:
“We are changing the law to stop [European Economic Area] nationals coming to the UK and becoming ordinarily resident to get free NHS care.”