The European Commission has adopted a proposal for a draft directive which would greatly expand the rights of the continent’s patients to cross-border healthcare.

The main provision of the directive states that patients have the right to seek healthcare abroad and be reimbursed up to what they would have received at home. Specifically this means that if a treatment is covered under the patient's national healthcare system, they could opt to receive that treatment in another European Union member state, and pay their own medical costs upfront, and be reimbursed "without prior authorisation".

The Commission noted that “despite several clear European Court of Justice rulings” confirming that individual patients have the right to to seek healthcare in other member states and get their money back at home, “uncertainty remains over how to apply the principles of this jurisprudence more generally”. With this proposal, the Commission said it aims to provide “legal certainty on this issue”, adding that the proposed directive “provides a solid basis to unlock the huge potential for European cooperation to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of all EU health systems”.

European Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said the proposal aims to clarify how patients can exercise their rights to cross-border healthcare “while at the same time providing legal certainty for member states and healthcare providers”. She added that “it ensures that the quality and safety of health care will be guaranteed throughout the Union”.

The directive will facilitate European cooperation on healthcare, the Commission said, as it has great potential to bring benefits to patients through easier access to highly specialised care. The plan would also facilitate the efficient use of resources, it added.

The measures, which have to be approved by individual governments and the European Parliament, could come into effect in 2010. However the response from certain member states, eg the UK, has been somewhat cautious.

The Department of Health responded by saying that the UK Government "is clear that 'health tourism' will not be funded by the National Health Service". A spokesman added that "we are also absolutely committed to ensuring that, where UK patients choose to travel abroad for care, the NHS retains the ability to decide what care it will fund. Equally, anyone from other member states travelling to the UK specifically for healthcare will have to pay the full NHS cost of treatment upfront".