A contentious new government policy which requires health care professionals to crack down on so-called “health tourism” has been slammed by medics as an attempt to “scapegoat migrants and fuel xenophobia”.
New rules come into force today which require all providers of treatment on the NHS to establish if patients are eligible for free care.
Foreign visitors who are not eligible may have to pay upfront for any non-urgent or planned care under the regulations introduced by the Department of Health.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Department of Health’s offices in central London on Monday morning to protest the policy, with dozens more joining the #patientsnotpassports social media trend.
Hospitals will be required to identify a patient’s chargeable status so any costs can be recovered, however doctors have warned the rules “lack clarity” and could burden NHS Trusts with extra bureaucracy.
Among the treatments exempt from the charging rules are emergency care and maternity care.
Charging will also not apply when it is not in the interest of public health to do so, such as treating infectious disease.
Meanwhile vulnerable groups of people, such as asylum seekers, will not be charged for treatment.
Dr Jessica Potter is a lung specialist at Queen Mary University London. She opposes the government policy, saying that it is a distraction from the far larger - and expensive - problem of “chronic underfunding” of health services.
“The NHS is grossly underfunded and people are overworked and this is just a mechanism to scapegoat migrants and fuel xenophobia,” Dr Potter told HuffPost UK.
She warned that the new policy could cause a public health crisis as people will be deterred from seeking help, particularly in the earlier stages of an illness or disease.
“For all diseases the longer you leave a disease untreated the more expensive it becomes to treat and the more likely it will need to be treated in emergency care, which puts pressure on the National Health Service.
″(The NHS) is already overstretched and it being overstretched has absolutely nothing to do with health tourism and everything to do with chronic underfunding and is a political choice by this government.”
She added: “We need to call for the government to retract this ridiculous policy and evaluate it. It’s very unclear whether this will save the NHS any money at all and in fact, it’s most likely to cost not just more money but human lives.”
Dr Potter said that she feels under pressure to sign the forms declaring whether a patient is eligible for treatment because if she does not then she may be accused of fraud.
“I don’t agree with the policy but I’ve also read all of the policy documents and in it there’s a section which suggests that people should report doctors and other people working in the healthcare service for fraud if they attempt to try to treat someone who is ineligible for treatment. It talks about criminal charges and criminal and civil prosecution,” she added.
Campaign group DocsNotCops encouraged supports to post pictures of themselves holding a banner reading “patientsnotpassports” today.
Healthcare professionals from a range of specialisms shared images on social media in protest to the government’s scheme.
Non healthcare professionals also shared images on social media.
Health Minister Lord O’Shaughnessy said the NHS was open to foreign visitors so long as they make their “fair financial contribution” towards care costs.
“The new regulations simply require NHS bodies to make enquiries about, and then charge, those who aren’t entitled to free NHS care. All the money raised goes back into funding and improving care for NHS patients,” he said.
“We are clear that some vulnerable groups are exempt from charging and the NHS will never withhold urgent and immediately necessary treatment.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the British Medical Association, said it was “vital” patients with acute needs, or those from vulnerable groups, do not face bureaucratic or financial obstacles.
To do so would be “morally unacceptable and could end up costing the NHS more money due to lack of timely treatment,” he added.
“It is important that those accessing NHS services are eligible to do so, especially at a time when the NHS is under intense pressure and struggling to cope with patient demand,” he said.
“However, the current charging proposals lack clarity around how and when overseas patients should be charged which does run the risk of causing confusion and an additional administrative burden within NHS Trusts.”