11/09/2015 06:12 BST | Updated 11/09/2015 08:59 BST

Exclusive: Migrant NHS Fraud Costs Only £700 Despite Fury Over Health Card Abuse. Government Accused Of 'Stoking Up Mistrust'

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European Health Insurance Card provides health cover when travelling in the European Union

The Government is accused of "stoking up a mistrust" in migrants after fraud involving Europeans charging the NHS for care outside the UK amounted to just £700, The Huffington Post UK can reveal.

An investigation by the Daily Mail claimed a "loophole" could be exploited allowing recent arrivals to obtain an European Health Insurance Card, issued by the NHS to British people to pay for emergency treatment on the continent.

The report cited online forums where East Europeans boasted how easy it was to charge the UK for treatments in their homeland, and argued the card could be used for a range of expenses, including a £47,000 liver transplant or "multiple pregnancies and births".

The investigation, which claimed an undercover Hungarian journalist got a card after visiting the UK for one day, led to Downing Street ordering an urgent investigation and a health minister saying the practice is "completely unacceptable".

But in response to a Freedom of Information request made by The Huffington Post UK asking how widespread the practice was in the last five years, the Department of Health indicated cases of fraud are modest.

Officials have found just nine instances of fraud, costing the British taxpayer £712.56.

The figure is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of pounds the NHS has spent in recent years on reimbursing other European countries for treating British nationals needing emergency care.

The FOI response reveals £141 million was spent last year alone on emergency and planned treatments carried out abroad.

But the Whitehall department made clear "no stone would be left unturned" in its efforts.

The Daily Mail front page splashing on its investigation

Freedom of Information response to The Huffington Post UK

The EHIC was introduced in 2006 to replace the old E111 form. Most European countries have a similar or identical system for their nationals to get free or reduced-cost healthcare in the UK and across Europe

The card lasts for five years, but can be renewed, and can be successfully applied for with a British national insurance or NHS number.

The Mail said its reporter secured the card after another journalist posed as her landlord and presented a GP with the tenancy agreement of a property that neither occupied to get an NHS number.

While Conservative MP Andrew Percy raged against "soft touch Britain" becoming the "International Health Service", an analysis by the Guardian questioned many of the piece's central claims.

The Department of Health maintains its is determined to root out any fraud.

A spokesman said: “It is unacceptable that people living outside the UK think they can abuse our NHS, which is why we are looking at ways we can tighten up the EHIC process and better identify fraudulent applications.”

But Labour MP Jess Philips said: "The Department of Health should not waste resources investigating nine cases of fraud.

"There are so many real scandals they should investigate such as thousands of mentally ill young people dwindling for months and years on waiting lists.

"Stoking up a mistrust of people abroad is unhelpful and Government efforts should focus on looking after those they are letting down at home."

Duncan O'Leary, research director of the Demos think tank, said the Government should be looking to "harness the potential of newcomers".

He said: "Successive flows of migration have made Britain a more dynamic and cosmopolitan society, and yet it is also true that population increases inevitably put strains on public services, and people need to be supported to access opportunities and integrate well into the nation's civic and working life.

"Most migrants arrive here with a strong desire to work, and many are degree-educated - and yet some minority groups continue to be vulnerable to poverty and social segregation.

"There is a role for Government to play in preparing the country for population growth and connecting people with services.

"Ultimately, though, in liberal society it is up to people themselves whether they choose to live and work with one another."


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