Medical care for foreign visitors 'to be restricted'


The government will consider restricting free medical care to foreigners staying in the UK temporarily, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has told MPs.

Mr Hunt was answering an urgent question, tabled by Labour MP Frank Field on 25 March 2013.

Mr Hunt said: "The current system of policing and enforcing the entitlement of foreign nationals to free NHS care is chaotic and often out of control.

"At a time when we are having to face the challenges of an ageing society, it places a significant and unjustified burden on our GPs' surgeries and hospitals and may well impact on the standard of care received by British citizens."

Under the current system, tourists are entitled to free primary healthcare, while foreign students are entitled to all NHS services, Mr Hunt said.

He told MPs that options under review for the NHS included plans to extend charging for NHS services to some overseas visitors, ending access to free primary care for all visitors and tourists and making a pre-payment or medical insurance requirement for visitors to pay for NHS healthcare.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said there was already a legal duty for costs to be recovered from overseas patients.

"We need more precision and clarity from the secretary of state, firstly on the scale of the problem," he said.

Referring to a speech on immigration by David Cameron earlier in the day, Mr Burnham said that the prime minister's spokesperson had put the cost of "health tourism" at "£10m to £20m"; while Mr Hunt told the BBC's World at One programme that the cost was closer to £200m.

"Second, we need more detail," Mr Burnham said.

"Has he consulted with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on any proposed changes? There are practical questions about which health professionals will need reassurance.

"We have heard in the news about problems in the Border and Immigration Agency. What assurances can the secretary of state give health professionals that they won't be used to plug the gaps that have been created by the government's severe cuts to the frontline of the border force?"

Mr Burnham also asked that clarity would be given to whether the changes would apply to planned and emergency care.

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