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British citizens could be forced to carry ID cards to access free NHS care as part of crackdown on health tourism
Care may be restricted to those who have lived in UK more than a yearMPs say scheme only works if those entitled to free care can prove it
20:51 GMT, 3 March 2013
00:48 GMT, 4 March 2013
Proposals for an NHS card have been sent to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt
Britons could have to carry an ‘entitlement card’ to access free NHS care as part of a crackdown on health tourists, it emerged yesterday.
David Cameron is considering plans to restrict free healthcare for immigrants to those who have lived here for more than a year, amid fears the cash-strapped NHS has become the ‘Global Health Service’.
Reforms under discussion could mean immigrants having to wait six months or even a year before being granted habitual residency and therefore hospital care.
But MPs say the scheme can only work if those entitled to free care can prove it. This would involve them presenting a card at the point of treatment.
However, the idea could spark civil liberty concerns akin to the opposition to Labour’s plans to impose an identity card.
And any plans to change the habitual residency test could be controversial. The European Commission is already unhappy that the UK has imposed such a test to prevent immigrants gaining access to all benefits and would be likely to oppose a plan to extend the test to entitlement to NHS care.
Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, and Nicholas Soames, Tory MP for Mid Sussex, who co-chairman a cross-party parliamentary group on balanced migration, have written a letter to Jeremy Hunt to outline their proposal. They told the Health Secretary to ‘get this situation dealt with very soon’ to avoid a public backlash.
The idea would be welcomed by many doctors who say they find it difficult to ask people whether they are entitled to NHS care for fear of appearing racist.
Conservative plans to clamp down on immigrants’ access to free healthcare will be seen as an another attempt by the party to steal a march on UKIP after their second place in last week’s Eastleigh by-election.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed they pushed the Tories into third because David Cameron was too busy talking about issues such as wind turbines and gay marriage rather than immigration.
Ill-fated: Labour's ID card plan failed
Mr Cameron has confirmed previous reports that he is backing plans to clamp down on immigrants’ access to free healthcare. He wants to do this by changing the ‘habitual residency test’, which is used to refuse certain benefits to immigrants. At present, it gives full access to NHS care to anyone permanently resident in the UK.
Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, would like to see a habitual residence test for all handouts
In addition, hospitals will be compelled to enforce current rules which mean tourists and others who have no right to free care – including failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants – are charged for any services they receive on the NHS.
A source close to Mr Hunt said there was concern that the NHS was being exploited by ‘more and more’ people from overseas, putting a strain on services.
‘The National Health Service is becoming the global health service,’ the source said. ‘We are looking at the way in which services are open to people. You have to be ordinarily resident to access healthcare.
‘We have to have a look at that and whether there is a prospect of changing that. We are looking in a bit more detail at the contributions you need [to have paid] to be entitled to free healthcare.’
The habitual residence test is used to decide whether migrants from the EU and elsewhere are eligible for certain benefits.
Last month Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said he wanted to see the test extended to all handouts, so that no one can claim a benefit unless they can show they have rented a home here for at least a year.
Ministers want to get to grips with the issue before the expected influx of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians next year once EU restrictions are lifted.