Foreign nationals to pay for GP visits under DH crackdown

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has revealed plans to charge visitors to the UK to use GP services.

Professor Clare Gerada: plans will increase burden on GPs
Professor Clare Gerada: plans will increase burden on GPs

GP leaders hit out at the plans, warning they would put pressure on GPs and save very little NHS funding.

The proposals are part of a cross-government consultation to ‘make it more difficult for illegal migrants to live in the UK unlawfully, and to ensure legal migrants make a fair contribution to our key public services’.

Mr Hunt said: ‘We need to ensure that those residing in or visiting the UK are contributing to the system, but we want to implement a system that limits red tape and administration for NHS professionals.’

Proposals include a £200-a-year NHS levy for people applying for UK visas, or the use of private health insurance as an alternative.

The government could impose a further charge for GP visits on patients who visit the UK for less than six months.

There could also be a new system, linked to NHS numbers, for tracking patients not entitled to free care.

Mr Hunt told the BBC: 'We’re not talking about turning anyone away. What we are talking about is being better at checking whether people are entitled to free treatment or not, and better at chasing up that money if they should be paying.

'Most other countries in the world have developed systems like that. We have to make sure the NHS is sustainable in the long term. We have a lot of pressures, and we really love our NHS, it’s one of the things we are proud of as a country, but it is a national health service, not an international health service.’

RCGP chairwoman Professor Clare Gerada told the BBC the plans would increase the burden on doctors. She said: ‘My first duty is to my patient - I don't ask where they're from or whether they've got a credit card or whether they can pay.’

Dr Gerada said the amount of taxpayers’ money spent each year treating people who are ineligible amounted to just two hours of NHS spending. The NHS estimated in 2011/12 that it spent £33m treating foreign nationals, £21m of which was recovered, with £12m written off. The annual NHS budget is around £110bn.

GPC chairman, DR Laurence Buckman, said the BMA would ‘strongly oppose’ any system which required GPs to act as Border Force agents and enforce immigration checks. ‘Doctors should spend their time treating patients and not acting as the arbitrators of whether patients are eligible to receive NHS care’, he said.

‘If abuse of the system is taking place then measures should be in place to stop this, but we need to hear more information from the Government on how this can be realistically achieved.’

Dr Buckman warned ministers against rushing through its proposals.‘The botched launch of NHS111 demonstrates what can happen if a system is rushed through because of politically driven deadlines’, he said.

But Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire LMCs chief executive Dr Peter Graves said GPs who had raised concerns about the problems would be ‘delighted’ that the government was listening.

He said ‘lots of people come into the country specifically for dealing with specific problems, for example to have babies’.

'Those are the people that really need to understand that we just can’t afford to give them free treatment when they come here specifically for that purpose,' he added.

Dr Graves questioned the accuracy of the £12m cost, which he said could be just based on hospital treatment. But there many people, he claimed, come into the country, claim an NHS number at a GP surgery and are never questioned on their eligibility.

Viewpoint: Scrap plan for foreign nationals to pay for GP visits

GPC chairman, DR Laurence Buckman, said the BMA would ‘strongly oppose’ any system which required GPs to act as Border Force agents and enforce immigration checks. ‘Doctors should spend their time treating patients and not acting as the arbitrators of whether patients are eligible to receive NHS care’, he said.
‘If abuse of the system is taking place then measures should be in place to stop this, but we need to hear more information from the Government on how this can be realistically achieved.’
Dr Buckman warned ministers against rushing through its proposals.‘The botched launch of NHS111 demonstrates what can happen if a system is rushed through because of politically driven deadlines’, he said.

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