GPs will be responsible for policing access to NHS care by migrants under a coordinated crackdown on health tourism due to be announced this week.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt will announce details of the plans on Wednesday but he said ahead of his speech that foreign nationals would be made to pay for their NHS treatment.
The DH said Mr Hunt will unveil a raft of proposals including a new registration and tracking system, possibly linked to the NHS number, which will be used to spot those not allowed free care before they enter the system. It said the proposals will not restrict access to emergency treatment, but those not entitled to free care will be required to pay for further care.
But the plans for execution are not yet finalised, with the DH saying it wants to ‘work with GPs’ on setting up the new system of checks.
Mr Hunt claims that the move will enable the NHS to reclaim ‘£200m’ which may be lost annually to the NHS. He said: ‘No one expects health workers to become immigration guards and we want to work alongside doctors to bring about improvements, but I’m clear we must all work together to protect the NHS from costly abuse.
‘We want a system that is fair for the British taxpayer by ensuring that foreign nationals pay for their NHS treatment.
‘By looking at the scale of the problem and at where and how improvements can be made we will help ensure the NHS remains sustainable for many years to come.’
Alongside the proposals, the health secretary has ordered an audit of the true cost of use of the NHS by foreign nationals. In 2011/12 the NHS identified that foreign nationals should have paid £33m in hospitals, reclaiming £21m of this amount while writing off around £12m. But the DH admitted that it currently does not know the real cost, being only able to refer to an external report from insurers CCI from 2003 which estimated the cost to be between £50m and £200m.
However the announcement also brings a new cost to the NHS, as the Government plans to give Britons living permanently abroad lifelong access to free NHS care as long as they have paid ten years’ worth of national insurance in the UK. Currently, expats living abroad on a permanent basis are expected to pay when using the NHS.
The proposals follow a DH review which found that some people visiting the UK for a short time are receiving healthcare free of charge because the rules are more generous than most other countries.
The Immigration Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech at the beginning of May, saw a backlash from critics including RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada, who warned GPs must not be turned into border police having to check the migration status of all of their patients.
The DH said in April that they were looking at an idea where patients with a ‘questionable’ residency status will be issued with a temporary NHS number.
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.