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GPs treating asylum seekers unfairly targeted by PCOs

Exclusive One in ten primary care organisations flout official guidance by investigating GPs thought to be treating undocumented migrants, amid widespread confusion over the treatment rights of asylum seekers, a Pulse investigation reveals.

Department of Health guidance permits treatment for asylum seekers with an active claim or appeal, while failed asylum seekers, including those facing deportation, can be treated by GPs at their discretion.

But data obtained from 85 PCOs under the Freedom of Information Act shows that managers in different parts of the country take very different stances over the treatment of asylum seekers in primary care. While a third of PCOs adhered to the DH guidance, and said they would take no action against GPs who decided to treat failed asylum seekers, one in 10 said they would investigate GPs.

NHS Peterborough and NHS Sheffield said that GPs who ‘knowingly registered ineligible patients' would be investigated by counter fraud officials, while NHS Isle of Wight said they could ‘seek redress' against GPs depending on the details of the case.

The remainder – and majority – of PCOs were unclear on what action they would take.

The findings come as a new Pulse survey exposed similar confusion among GPs over the issue.

Some 29% of the 290 respondents said they restrict free access to care for asylum seekers and non-UK migrants, while one in four said guidance from the local PCT placed restrictions on care.

Almost half of GPs admitted not knowing whether their PCT restricted access, while the two-thirds of GPs said they did not believe non-UK migrants should have access to NHS care.

Dr Angela Burnett, a GP in Hackney, East London, and lead doctor at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, said: 'There needs to be clearer guidance on accessing primary care for these groups. Having said that, any GP who is refusing care to an active asylum seeker is going against regulations.'

‘When it comes to failed asylum seekers, the RCGP, at least in London, and Londonwide LMCs also encourage GPs to treat them. GPs are entitled to do that at their discretion but there needs to be wider awareness of that.'  

Dr Miriam Beeks, a GP at the Lower Clapton Group Practice, also in Hackney, said: ‘The DH needs to better spell out to GPs what they can and can't do for undocumented migrants.'

‘The current rules do say that  it is at our discretion, but it puts us in a difficult and vague position. There is a real risk to patients' health if they cannot access primary care. Severe conditions can go undiagnosed and untreated for years, harming the patient and costing the NHS more in the long run.'