Britain on Monday announced new rules that will make it mandatory for hospitals to “charge upfront” Indian and other foreigners who are not eligible for free medical treatment for non-urgent problems under the National Health Service (NHS).
The rules were announced by health secretary Jeremy Hunt in the context of bills amounting to millions of pounds annually for treating ineligible foreigners. The trend of foreigners visiting Britain allegedly to access free NHS treatment has been dubbed as “health tourism”.
The new rules come into effect from April, and are expected to play an important role in meeting the Theresa May government’s ambition to recover up to £500 million a year from overseas visitors who are not eligible for free care.
Hunt said: “We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS – as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does. So today we are announcing plans to change the law which means those who aren’t eligible for free care will be asked to pay upfront for non-urgent treatment.”
The NHS, founded in 1948, provides a range of health services, free at the point of delivery, to people ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom.
The new rules mean patients will need to produce identity documents such as passports to prove they are eligible for free treatment. Campaigners criticised the rules that will affect vulnerable people such as undocumented migrants, victims of human trafficking and the homeless.
Foreigners will still be eligible for emergency treatment, but instead of being charged before the treatment, they will be billed later. Health officials have documented a large number of instances of foreigners with non-residency status accessing free NHS treatment.
For example, in 2015-16, the London North West Healthcare NHS Trust alone billed £473,310 to people from India. The single biggest bill for one patient from India was £28,487, according to a Freedom of Information request by The Daily Telegraph.
“Health tourism”, whereby foreigners allegedly travel to Britain for free NHS treatment they are not entitled to, is estimated to take up about 0.3% of the NHS’s budget.