Next week the EU will lay out proposals which will formalise the right of NHS users to seek safer and often superior health care abroad. Increasing numbers of UK citizens already choose to travel as far as India and Malaysia to avoid treatment in the NHS (nearly 70,000 this year alone), but these Commission proposals – if agreed upon by the European Parliament and member states – will potentially establish a genuinely open market in European health care; a market in which the weaknesses of Britain’s NHS are bound to be revealed.
Under the Commission’s ‘2008-2013 Health Strategy’, EU citizens could choose medical care in any other member state and have the cost covered by their national health care system, providing the treatment or service is provided for free in the patient’s home state. A series of European Court rulings over recent years has established a British citizen’s right to look elsewhere in the Union for free treatment if they are deemed to be on ‘unduly long waiting lists’, but with widespread fears over hospital acquired infections, the potential for mass ‘health tourism’ away from the UK is a serious challenge to the government’s health policy.
Health ministers have expressed concern that these EU plans would place an unworkable administrative and planning burden on the NHS, but the reality is that these proposals could potentially reveal people’s dissatisfaction with health care in this country. Hospitals in northern France already perform considerable numbers of hip and knee operations, while Spain attracts those seeking fertility treatment. Belgium offers British cardiac patients a higher chance of success and a lower rate of infection, and the Netherlands is far quicker in the provision of cancer medication. If these sensible EU plans are carried through, Calais could not only offer British citizens the chance to avoid excessive alcohol duties, it could also offer British citizens the chance to get necessary health care quicker and safer than what’s on offer back home.