The government is putting in place measures to prevent the National Health Service from becoming an international health service, and is undertaking a wider review of current practice in charging non-residents for care to create a fairer system.

Following consultations last year on a package of proposals on charging visitors for NHS hospital care, the government has decided to instill tougher measures in a bid to tackle health tourism, a practice by which some patients come to the UK to access healthcare without paying, costing the country millions of pounds every year.

One such measure involves preventing anyone owing the health service £1,000 or more from staying or entering the UK until their debt is paid off, and as such the NHS will be expected to pass details of foreign patients who have failed to pay for treatment on to the UK Border Control Agency. 

According to the government, this action alone should capture 94% of outstanding charges owed to the health service.

In other changes for NHS patients in England, the time UK residents can stay abroad and keep their entitlement to free hospital treatment has been extended from three to five months. In addition, the small number of failed asylum seekers co-operating on registered Home Office support schemes will be exempt from charges, while all unaccompanied children under local authority care will also be guaranteed free hospital treatment.

However, the government feels that the existing system is still too complex, generous and inconsistently applied, and so has launched a wider review of practice. This, it says, will look at changing the residency criteria for treatment, whether GPs should and other ex-hospital services should charge non-residents, and whether visas should be dependent on health insurance, in order to ensure that the system is both fair and affordable.

According to health minister Anne Milton, the changes will "begin the process of developing a clearer, robust and fairer system of access to free NHS services which our review of the charging system will complete", with the aim of creating a system that "maintains the confidence of the public while preventing inappropriate free access and continuing our commitment to human rights and protecting vulnerable groups".