A £700 million health tourism gap is a burden the NHS can ill afford

Several newspapers have reported that the ‘health tourism gap’ was almost £700 million in 2013-14. This is the difference between UK payments to EU governments for Brits who need health care abroad and payments which the UK receives for EU States’ citizens using the NHS (Daily Mail).

For the treatment of foreign nationals in 2013-14, the UK has received just £50.3 million and is still chasing a further £62 million of unpaid bills. The rebate was higher than the total for the previous year (which was just £32 million) but the UK’s total payments also rose by over £100 million– from £649.3 million to £749.8 million.

The Daily Express reported some of the more shocking examples including the £428,000 treatment of a haemophiliac which remains unpaid. Individually, Kings College University Trust is owed £17.9 million in unpaid care bills, and the Department of Health estimates that the UK’s total liability could really be as high as £2 billion.

It is thought that hospitals are simply not identifying foreign patients whose payment should be reimbursed. In response Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron have pledged tougher measures to recoup a further £500m annually by 2017-18, but this change is shamefully slow in coming.

Taxpayers, patients and health providers will all be concerned that the health tourism gap is so large (especially given the estimated scale of the issue). While all of the political parties are busy pledging more of people’s money to the NHS, those in power and those on the ground have not done enough to ensure that funds that Trusts already receive are spent wisely.

Obviously, care should be given in any emergency to anybody who needs it, irrespective of nationality. However the pressure on the UK’s national finances means it is not acceptable that taxpayers should have to foot the bill because of a lax approach to redress. 

A £700 million ‘health tourism gap’ is a burden that the NHS can ill afford and a more robust approach is required to establish who should be paying for treatment.