British Medical Association not for free NHS care to asylum seekers

Motion guaranteeing elective care, as well as emergency care, rejected
1 July 2009: The British Medical Association (BMA) has turned down a motion, which sought government to guarantee asylum seekers free access to NHS care.

The motion was proposed by medical student Helen Preston, who was of the opinion that denying treatment to asylum seekers was not cost effective; and it just made them more likely to go to A&E.

She was also of the opinion the public health too was at a risk, as denying treatment only delayed the detection and cure of infectious diseases. In the support of her contentions, Preston had cited evidence from the findings of the Refugee Council.

Elaborating, she said it showed attempts to bar asylum seekers from treatment resulted in ‘people who are entitled to care being denied it’.

The other speakers, however, questioned the costs of guaranteeing such treatment.

Dr Terry John, chair of the BMA’s international committee, too warned against backing a motion that would have guaranteed elective care, as well as emergency care. The motion was, subsequently, rejected.

Only recently, three judges at the Court of Appeal had ruled failed asylum seekers could not receive free treatment on the NHS. Hospitals could however decide themselves whether to treat such individuals, if they had no money, the judges said.

Lord Justice Ward said the patient must have resided lawfully in the UK for at least a year to receive free health service treatment.

The case was brought by a Palestinian asylum seeker, who was under investigation over his asylum claim. The appeal judges ruled hospitals do have the discretion to provide free treatment to penniless failed asylum seekers.

Lord Justice Ward said the government’s guidance for chargeable patients was to seek a deposit for the full cost of the treatment, but it offered no guidance on what happens when the deposit cannot be paid.

"No help is given in the case of those who cannot return home before the treatment does become necessary. What is to happen to the patient who cannot wait?" he said.

"My conclusion is that it is implicit in the guidance that there is a discretion to withhold treatment but there is also discretion to allow treatment to be given when there is no prospect of paying for it."

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