Socialist members of the European Parliament’s public health committee have claimed that current Commission plans to allow cross-border health care would lead to a “European Union health service.”

20 Socialist and Green members of the environment, public health and food safety committee (ENVI) have boycotted a vote on Parliament’s response to the Commission’s proposed directive permitting cross-border health care because, they say, its rules on prior authorisation, requiring patients to obtain permission from their home governments before travelling to receive health care in other EU countries, are not strict enough.

“We want to make it clear that health services are the responsibility of governments – there is not going to be an EU health service,” said Linda McAvan, a UK Socialist who abstained from the vote.

The 20 MEPs also want the law to be filed under the health section of the EU legal rulebook as well as the internal market (as the European Commission proposes), in order, they say, to stress that it is concerned with patients’ rights, not only economic interests, and to ensure that it is not used purely by wealthy “health tourists.”

Cypriot MEP Adamos Adamou, who abstained from the vote, said that health care must remain the responsibility of member state governments. As it stands, the planned directive would lead to the deconstruction of national health systems and incite patients to go abroad for treatment, but only the rich would be able to do so and citizens of poorer member states would be disadvantaged, he warned.

Nevertheless, the ENVI panel voted 31-3 in favour of the proposals and the bill’s rapporteur, UK centre-right MEP John Bowis, pointed out that stricter authorisation rules would go against judgements made by the European Court of Justice (ECoJ). Since 1998, these have backed the rights of patients to seek health care in any EU member state and be reimbursed by their own national systems. However, these rights have yet to be incorporated into EU legislation.

Mr Bowis said the directive will give patients the right to seek treatment across the EU if their national health provider has let them down with a poor or delayed service. The present system has too often caused people unnecessary confusion at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives, he said, adding: “it is essential that we provide greater clarity and legal certainty."

The law’s supporters point out that the directive would not oblige health care providers in one member state to provide treatment for a patient from another EU state, that it does not affect patient rights and that it is about patients and their mobility, not the free movement of service providers; Green MEPs claim that it would treat health care as simply a service to be traded freely throughout the EU.

As it now stands, the directive would require patients to seek prior authorisation for hospital treatment such as surgery but not for non-hospital care. However, ENVI believes that it should be for the member state governments, and not the Commission, to define what hospital care is. There should be exceptions for patients with rare diseases or disabilities, but long-term care and organ transplantation should not be included in the scope of the directive, adds the committee.

The bill will now go to an all-parliamentary plenary vote later this month, and while its supporters are confident of another large majority, the dissidents could garner strong support from the member state governments, which generally also want stricter authorisation rules in order to be able to plan their national health budgets and maintain sovereignty.