Up to £500 million could be recovered from overseas visitors’ and migrants’ use of the National Health Service every year, according to a UK government report.
The Department of Health has published what it calls is the first comprehensive study of how widely migrants use the NHS. It estimates that £388 million is spent each year on patients who find themselves in need of healthcare while in the UK and who should already be paying for it but who are often not processed and charged by the NHS.
Only around 16% is currently recovered and the study, carried out by the Creative Research consultancy, also points out that there is a cost of between £70 million and £300 million from people who deliberately travel to the UK to get free NHS treatment. It claims that a better cost recovery system would deter abuse of the system by so-called 'health tourists".
The study estimates the total cost of visitors and temporary migrants accessing NHS services to be between £1.9-£2 billion but this includes money already recovered, the full cost of international students’ healthcare and "a number of vulnerable patient groups and services that it would be impractical or inappropriate to charge for in full, such as treatment for infectious diseases".
The government is introducing a new health surcharge in the Immigration Bill will be set at around £150 for students and at £200 for other temporary migrants – raising up to £1.9 billion over a ten year period based on some 490,000 applicants who would be required to pay. In Spain, foreign students pay £50 a month towards their healthcare costs, while Australia charges £260 a year for restricted private health insurance for students.
The DoH noted that it is establishing a cost recovery unit, and is looking at incentives so that hospitals report that they have treated someone from the European Economic Area to enable the Government to recover the costs of care from their home country;. It also plans to introduce a simpler process to help identify earlier those patients who should be charged.
The government argues that even if only 75% of this £500 million was recovered, it would be the equivalent of almost 4,000 doctors’ or over 8,500 nurses’ salaries. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that "having a universal health service free at the point of use rightly makes us the envy of the world, but we must make sure the system is fair to the hardworking British taxpayers who fund it". He added that "it’s time for action to ensure the NHS is a national health service – not an international one".
However, critics of the scheme have questioned the figures and fear it would deter some people from seeking medical help.