How I'll weed out the health tourists, by Hunt: Minister acts after Mail highlights abuse of NHS
Jeremy Hunt believes non-UK residents are granted NHS numbers too easily
Mr Hunt said the system was completely unacceptable
He proposed anyone with a 'questionable residency' should be issued with a temporary number
23:28 GMT, 18 April 2013
06:32 GMT, 19 April 2013
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants only permanent British residents to qualify for anything other than emergency care
Foreigners travelling to Britain to take advantage of our free health service will be denied treatment under radical plans for a shake-up of the system of personal NHS identification numbers.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants only permanent British residents to qualify for anything other than emergency care free of charge.
He believes non-UK residents are granted NHS numbers – which entitle them to free care – far too easily.
In many cases, anyone who turns up at a GP surgery is given a number.
On referral to hospital, no further questions about their entitlement are asked – meaning that ‘health tourists’ or those who have fallen ill unexpectedly while in this country are given unlimited free access to the NHS, Government sources say.
Mr Hunt said the system was ‘completely unacceptable’.
He has proposed that in future, anyone with a ‘questionable’ residency status should be issued with only a temporary NHS number.
It would mean that if they tried to access anything other than accident and emergency departments, they would be charged.
‘It is completely unacceptable that people are abusing the NHS and accessing free care they are not entitled to,’ the Health Secretary told the Daily Mail.
‘Changing the way the NHS number is used is just one stage of my plan to shut down free NHS care for those who are not entitled to it.’
It is expected that hospitals or surgeries would be under a new obligation to check whether patients are entitled to free care.
They would be able to refer cases to a central body – probably NHS England – which would determine what should be charged.
Sources said a consultation will determine the best way of requiring people to prove residency, possibly through council tax records or the electoral roll.
The Government has promised a crackdown on health tourism, but until now it has been unclear how it would work.
Unacceptable: Mr Hunt has proposed that in the future anyone with a questionable residency should be issued with a temporary NHS number
Ministers have also been criticised for underestimating the scale of the problem, with official statistics suggesting it costs taxpayers around 20million a year.
But earlier this month the Mail revealed a senior doctor’s warning that the true cost is likely to run into billions of pounds.
Professor J Meirion Thomas, consultant surgeon at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, said the NHS had become the ‘world’s maternity wing’ as foreign expectant mothers arrive just to give birth.
Thousands of others are flying here for cancer, HIV, kidney and infertility treatment then leaving without paying, he said. He cited one example of a foreign patient arriving in renal failure on a visitor’s visa and had 849 dialysis sessions on the NHS.
He called for an overhaul of the system of NHS numbers, saying: ‘Those who work and pay tax here, and have a National Insurance number to prove it, ought to be granted full access to the NHS.
‘But it makes no sense to accord this right to visitors, especially when an NHS number can translate seamlessly into expensive long-term hospital care.’
Mr Hunt will unveil his proposals for an overhaul in a document on health tourism to be published in the next few months.
Anyone whose chargeable status was in question would in future receive a number that only gives temporary access, for example if they needed lifesaving treatment.
A Department of Health source said: ‘The system and processes we have in place to identify those who should pay are weak or poorly implemented.
‘Often, NHS numbers are allocated after a person registers at a GP practice, where current charging rules do not apply. On referral to secondary care with an NHS number, too often no further questions about entitlement are asked.’
Hospitals in England and Wales are supposed to ensure NHS patients have lived in the UK for the previous 12 months, and chase payment for non-emergency treatment from visitors.
But dozens of hospital trusts admit they do not check.