The NHS could be landed with a bill of nearly half a billion pounds if retired British expats decide to return home if their right to healthcare in Europe is withdrawn after Brexit.
And the figure could even be higher if the health service has to pay to replace staff lost due to curbs on EU migration, a report by the Nuffield Trust has revealed.
The research also calculates that care homes and home-care agencies could end up with a staff shortage as high as 70,000 in the next eight years, in what has been branded a ‘disaster’ for the NHS.
Mark Dayan, policy and public affairs analyst for the Nuffield Trust and author of the report, said: “The NHS and social care were already under pressure from tight funding settlements and growing staffing problems well before the EU referendum last year. But if we handle it badly, leaving the EU could make these problems even worse, given the potential impact on both the strength of the UK economy and the supply of overseas staff to both health and social care services.
“It is possible that extra funds could be found for the NHS from any cancellation of Britain’s EU membership fees – but whether or not these benefits will outweigh the significant staffing and financial costs Brexit may impose on already stretched services remains to be seen.
“That depends largely on the NHS being recognised as a significant priority as we enter some of the most important negotiations in Britain’s history.”
There are currently about 190,000 British pensioners living in other European countries, who currently receive healthcare through an EU agreement.
If those pensioners returned in the case of the benefit being withdrawn, the NHS would need about 900 extra beds - enough to fill two new hospitals.
The British Medical Association said the findings were a ‘stark reminder the NHS is at breaking point’.
“Not only might NHS resources fall, but existing chronic staff shortages could be worsened as half of the 10,000 EEA doctors working in the NHS are considering leaving the UK,” said BMA council chair Mark Porter.
“This would seriously impact patient care across the country and increase what are often already unacceptable delays for treatment.
“It is vital that the next government ensures long-term stability for the NHS by granting permanent residence to EEA doctors working in the UK; maintains the current working time regulations; protects life-changing medical research which benefits from European funding; and ensures that leaving the EU will not delay the UK’s access to vital pharmaceuticals.”
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said an ‘extreme Brexit’ would spell disaster for the health service.
“Crashing out of the EU without a deal would mean the loss of healthcare rights for British pensioners in Europe, putting huge pressure on our hospitals,” he added.
“We risk seeing nurses and social care workers from the EU leaving in their droves because Theresa May won’t do the right thing and guarantee their right to stay.
“A brighter future is possible. We will stand up to a bad Brexit deal that would hit the NHS hard, and give people the final say with a chance to remain in the EU.”
But the IFS has forecast challenges for the NHS regardless of who wins the general election, with all three main parties proposing real increases in health spending over the next parliament, but at a rate well below the long run historical average.
Economic experts say in the long run the NHS would be better served by a ‘serious attempt to address long run funding pressures in a coherent and systematic fashion, than by the government just announcing further short term funding fixes’.
Earlier this month, a report by think tank Global Future also warned of a looming staffing crisis in the healthcare sector if the Tories press ahead with plans to cut net migration to below 100,000. Experts have also forecast problems in construction and agriculture, which rely heavily on skilled and non-skilled EU workers.