Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has revealed that up to £500 million could be recovered from overseas visitors and migrants who use the NHS every year.
The Department of Health has published the first comprehensive study of how widely migrants use the NHS.
The study estimates that £388 million is spent each year on patients who find themselves in need of health care while in the UK and who should already be paying for their care, but who are often not processed and charged by the NHS. Only around 16 per cent is currently recovered by the NHS.
The report also shows that there is a cost of between £70 million and £300 million from people who deliberately travel to the UK to get free NHS treatment – so-called ‘health tourists’ – which could be significantly reduced through a better cost recovery system and deterring abuse.
The government has therefore decided to introduce a new health surcharge in the Immigration Bill as one of the measures aimed at tackling this issue and deterring the abuse of the system.
The new health surcharge is expected to generate an estimated £200 million.
The government has also appointed Sir Keith Pearson as an independent adviser on visitor and migrant cost recovery.
Other measures include looking at new incentives so that hospitals report that they have treated someone from the EEA to enable the Government to recover the costs of care from their home country; and introducing a simpler registration process to help identify earlier those patients who should be charged.
The Department of Health estimates that in total, the £388 million from patients in the UK, the £200 million generated through the surcharge, and the deterrent effect on the £70-£300 million from health tourists will together raise or save well over half a billion pounds.
A separate qualitative study shows that there is a clear and widespread evidence of ‘health tourism’.
Examples include family members of UK residents coming to the country from abroad, registering with a GP and then receiving NHS drugs and hospital care. There are also cases of new arrivals on visitor visas seeking immediate or major treatment including maternity services; and visitors requiring emergency treatment but being unable or unwilling to pay subsequent costs.
The Department of Health says that even if only 75 per cent of this £500 million was recovered, it would be the equivalent of almost 4,000 doctors’ or over 8,500 nurses’ salaries.
“Having a universal health service free at the point of use rightly makes us the envy of the world, but we must make sure the system is fair to the hardworking British taxpayers who fund it,” Mr. Hunt said. “We have one of the most generous systems in the world when it comes to health care for foreign visitors, but it’s time for action to ensure the NHS is a national health service – not an international one.”
The recent Home Office Immigration Bill creates powers to increase the number of migrants who will have to pay to access healthcare. This surcharge for temporary migrants will help ensure that those who are using the NHS are making the right financial contribution to it.
The surcharge will be set at around £150 for students and at around £200 for other temporary migrants – raising up to £1.9 billion over a ten year period based on approximately 490,000 applicants who would be required to pay.
Immigration Minister Mark Harper said: "The government is building a fairer immigration system which addresses the concerns of hardworking people. The Immigration Bill will tighten immigration law, strengthen our enforcement powers and clamp down on those from overseas who try to abuse our public services.
“The British public expects and deserves an immigration system that is fair and stops migrants using public services that they are not entitled to. These proposals will ensure that migrants here temporarily make a fair contribution to the cost of health services in the UK.”
Sir Keith welcomed the research describing it as “a helpful piece of analysis of the problem.”
He said he was confident that they “will be able to recover a good proportion of this money.”