GPs to check on patients' residency status to stop “health tourism”

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 20 May 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:1217
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. London

    General practitioners will need to vet new patients for their residential status before treating them, under new rules to be drawn up by the government in a bid to cut the cost of so called health tourists seeking medical care in the United Kingdom.

    The new proposals come just six weeks after hospitals introduced a system of charging overseas visitors for medical care other than emergency care.

    Under the new proposals, which are under consultation until 13 August, any patients who are not long term UK residents could be charged for GPs' services as private patients.

    Failed asylum seekers would lose their right to free treatment as soon as a decision was made against them. But they would continue to receive free treatment for any conditions that existed before their residency was rejected.

    Similarly, family members of people from overseas who reside permanently in the United Kingdom would be stopped from briefly visiting the country for free medical care. For example, pregnant women whose husbands work abroad would no longer have the right to give birth in an NHS hospital free of charge.

    John Hutton, the health minister, argued that the new regulations will bring clarity to primary care staff as to who is eligible for free treatment. “These changes are necessary if we are to protect NHS resources from possible abuse,” he said.

    However, doctors' and managers' groups are concerned that NHS staff are being asked to take on the government's responsibility of policing who is eligible for free NHS treatment, even though there is still no evidence of the cost that overseas visitors place on the system.

    Rosey Foster, acting chief executive of the Institute of Healthcare Management, said: “We are concerned that practice managers and GPs should not be expected to become a hidden arm of the immigration services.”

    Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA's General Practitioners Committee, said the impact of the proposals on certain groups, such as failed asylum seekers, needs to be carefully considered.

    “We will be studying and responding to the consultation document.”

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