Loophole 'allows foreigners to charge NHS for treatment abroad'

Loophole 'allows foreigners to charge NHS for treatment abroad'

Foreigners are charging the NHS for healthcare they receive in their own countries by using a legal loophole, it has emerged.

Migrants are able to use European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC), which are issued by the NHS, to charge for the full cost of medical treatment received in their own countries even if they have not paid any tax in Britain.

Health Minister Alistair Burt said the situation was "completely unacceptable".

The loophole was exposed after a Hungarian woman who had visited the UK for less than a day was issued a card and then returned to her native country where she was told by a number of clinics and hospitals that she could use it for a range of treatments funded by the UK taxpayer.

When she asked maternity clinic staff how many Hungarian women had registered for appointments covered by the NHS, she was reportedly told: "A lot of people. More and more."

Using the card, she could have had a consultation with an optometrist costing a potential £150, a dermatologist for £130, antenatal and maternity care for one pregnancy costing £9,500, or even a £47,000 liver transplant, according to the Daily Mail.

Romanians, Poles, Lithuanians and Slovakians are said to use online forums to boast about how they have managed to charge the UK for a range of health treatments in their home countries.

A Department of Health spokesman admitted that the loophole existed but claimed it was not often abused.

But Mr Burt said: "It is completely unacceptable that people living outside the UK think they can abuse our NHS.

"That's why this Government has already introduced tough measures to clamp down on migrants using healthcare without making a contribution, to save half a billion pounds within a few years.

"We are continually looking at ways we can tighten up the process further, and as a result of this investigation the Department will urgently carry out more work to include EHIC applications."

The NHS Choices website explains that an EHIC card can enable the holder to get free treatment.

It states: "An EHIC will enable you to access state-provided healthcare in European Economic Area countries, including Switzerland, at a reduced cost, or sometimes for free.

"It will cover your treatment until you return to the UK. It also covers treatment of pre-existing medical conditions and routine maternity care, providing the reason for your visit is not specifically to give birth."

To get a card, according to the site, a person must be "ordinarily resident" in the UK, meaning that they normally live there apart from temporary or occasional absences.

The NHS is said to be handing out more than five million of the cards for free every year, keeping no record of how many are given to foreigners.

MPs and campaigners demanded an immediate crackdown on the practice.

Andrew Percy, Tory MP for Brigg and Goole, who sits on the health select committee, said: "This is a complete outrage. It is another example of how soft touch Britain has become the International Health Service. The NHS is there for British citizens who have paid in."

Dr Sarah Wollaston, a GP and chairman of the health select committee, said: "You should not be offering EHIC cards to overseas citizens. This loophole will have to be rapidly closed because it has very serious implications for the NHS."

Consultant surgeon Meirion Thomas told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was a well known scam.

"It's already got around, it's there, it's in the real world," he said. "Migrants come into this country and ask for EHIC cards."

He said better checks on identification would help prevent the fraud.


The Telegraph, Monday 10 August 2015

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