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GPs call for primary care charges to prevent ‘health tourism’

Exclusive GPs should be able to charge overseas visitors if there is any doubt over their eligibility for healthcare in order to prevent ‘health tourism’, LMC leaders have urged ministers.

Bedfordshire and Herfordshire LMC has written to the Department of Health and the Home Office to urge them to to tackle the ‘difficulties’ faced by GP practices, who often have to treat visitors even if think they may not be eligible for care.

The intervention comes after Pulse revealed that more than half of GPs believe NHS entitlements for migrants are too generous, with some practices refusing to register patients they believe to be illegal immigrants or failed asylum seekers.

A Government review into the rules around migrant access to NHS services is due to be published shortly, and will look at whether charges for GP services should be considered.

In the letters to Mark Harper, the minister for immigration, health secretary Jeremy Hunt and local MPs, the LMC urges them to ensure that visitors entering the country have their eligiblity stamped on their passport.

Click here to read LMC letter

It cites ‘many examples’ where GPs have felt compelled to treat patients who are overseas visitors, even though they suspect they have come to the UK to gain health services.

Chief executive of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire LMC, Dr Peter Graves, wrote: ‘Those of us who pay our taxes do not expect to see precious NHS resources abused by people coming from abroad with the sole purpose of accessing free healthcare.

‘The main message of my letter is to ensure that you understand the difficulties faced by GPs, who are not the gatekeepers into the NHS and who find it impossible to police the abuse of the NHS by such visitors.’

Dr Graves called on the Government to make the rules on eligibility much clearer and for border controls to ensure they are aware when they arrive whether they are able to access free healthcare.

The letter states: ‘We would suggest that, if there is any doubt, GPs and hospitals should be instructed to charge patients and leave it up to the patient to make a case that they should be reimbursed.’

Dr Graves told Pulse that health tourists were a ‘national issue’ and that he will be meeting three MPs in the area to discuss how to tackle it.

He said: ‘If someone has an accident or falls acutely ill while they are visiting our country, we would treat them compassionately and they would almost certainly not end up with a bill. It’s the people who come here specifically to abuse the system.’

A reply from the Department of Health to the LMC said it was conducting a review of the rules, which it agreed were ‘too complex, overly generous and inconsistently applied’.

Click here to read DH’s reply

It said: ‘Ministers believe that measures are needed to provide a balance of fairness and affordability in the provision of NHS treatment for overseas visitors.

‘Therefore, the Government announced in March 2011 that we would undertake a thorough and wide-ranging review of the rules. The review has been concluded and the next steps are being considered.’

The review will consider: whether overseas visitors should be eligible for primary care charges; whether the term ‘ordinarily resident’ needs to be changed; and whether health insurance should be a requirement for visas.

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy GPC chair, said ‘it was right’ that border controls should determine the eligibility of patients, rather than GPs.

But he added: ‘But my fear is that the Government will choose the easier option from their point of view and place the burden on practices and that would be completely unacceptable.’