UK: No health tourism free-for-all


The Government has warned that it would not finance a “health tourism” free-for-all under plans to give patients rights to shop around Europe for the best and quickest medical treatment.

Proposals from the European Commission would guarantee that the cost of treatment elsewhere in the EU is reimbursed by the patient’s own national health scheme back home. The plan follows years of legal cases in which European court judges have ruled that freedom to cross EU borders for treatment should be a right for all.

The draft law states that, as long as a treatment is covered under the patient’s national healthcare system, he or she can opt to receive the treatment in another EU country and be reimbursed “without prior authorisation”.

Patients would have to pay the medical costs up front, but will be assured of repayment up to the level of cost of the same or similar treatment under their domestic national health system.

The Department of Health reacted cautiously, pointing out that the proposal was just a draft Directive and would be “subject to change” during negotiations on the issue between EU health ministers. Any finally agreed Directive would have to be acceptable to the UK and protect the NHS.

A Department of Health spokesman went on: “The Government is clear that health tourism will not be funded by the NHS. 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.

“The priority for the vast majority of NHS patients is high quality healthcare received close to their homes, and we remain committed to providing this.

To encourage people to take up the new rights, the Commission emphasised that healthcare quality and standards abroad would be guaranteed in the same way as for domestic patients. And, in the event of problems, patients would be guaranteed redress and compensation, helped by national contact points for cross-border healthcare.

European Health Commissioner Androulla Vassilliou commented: “This proposals aims to clarify how patients can exercise their rights to cross-border health care, while at the same time providing legal certainty for member states and health care providers.

“It ensures that the quality and safety of health care will be guaranteed throughout the Union, and promotes cooperation between health systems to provide better access to specialised care.”

The Press Association