Like most countries Britain is eager to encourage tourism. But there is one kind of foreign visitor the Brits are particularly anxious to deter: The health tourist. This is the foreigner who comes to the U.K. for the sole purpose of receiving free medical treatment under the country’s state-run National Health Service or NHS.
“I know of an American who came here and stayed for three months for a bone marrow transplant on the NHS, and then went home again.” says cancer specialist, Professor Joseph Meirion Thomas.
Testifying before a parliamentary committee, Professor Thomas claimed that five per cent of his patients are foreigners who are not entitled to the free health care they receive. He blamed slack controls and a reluctance by NHS staff to check a patient’s eligibility.
Usually you have to be legally resident in the United Kingdom to qualify for free treatment. The British government has unveiled a plan to crack down on the alleged abuses and claw back up to $750 million a year from foreign students and other visitors that use the health service.
But the plan is meeting resistance…from within the NHS.
“This plan would place a heavy burden on surgery reception staff to establish whether somebody was or wasn’t entitled to treatment” says Dr. Laurence Buckman , a family physician from north London.
“Our receptionists are not border police, do not have the time or the inclination to become border police, nor do we wish to be tax collectors for the government,” he says.
Some British doctors dispute that health tourism is a major problem in Britain. Staff at an east London clinic -- run by Doctors of the World, an international charity -- claim that many of the foreign patients they see have been refused treatment by the NHS.
Dr. Paquita de Zulueta describes the planned government crackdown as unnecessary, unethical and contrary to the spirit of the NHS.
“It completely contravenes all professional ethics to start discriminating and treating patients not according to their clinical need but according to their nationality and their immigration status,” she says.
But the British government is pressing ahead with its plan to curb health tourism. It says the NHS is the National and not the International Health Service.