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New regulations requiring overseas patients to pay a ‘fair contribution’ upfront will help recover the cost of healthcare given to overseas visitors and improve NHS patient care in the future.
The changes mean that, from April 2017, hospitals will be legally required to establish whether patients are eligible for free treatment on the NHS.
Those who are not eligible will be charged upfront for any non-urgent, planned care, while those in need of emergency care will be asked to pay for their treatment once they are better.
The new requirements will play a significant role in the Government’s plan to recover up to £500m a year from patients who are not ordinarily resident in the UK and eligible for free healthcare.
The money recovered will be reinvested to improve the quality of patient care and experiences in the future.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS – as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayer does.
“So today we are announcing plans to change the law which means those who aren’t eligible for free care will be asked to pay upfront for non-urgent treatment.
“We aim to recover up to £500 million a year by the middle of this Parliament – money that can then be reinvested in patient care.”
Under the new regulations, hospitals and NHS establishments will also be expected to clearly identify a patient’s ‘chargeable status’ so that other NHS bodies can easily access this information and charge patients where necessary.
Pilot schemes show improvements
Support and guidance will be provided to help hospitals and NHS bodies efficiently address any potential challenges before the changes are implemented and support them in identifying those who are not eligible for free healthcare, while NHS Improvement will work intensively with trusts that have the most potential to recover costs.
Stephen Grave, chief executive at Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which piloted upfront charging, said: “Since implementing our policy, we have seen an improvement in our hospitals.
“The funds recouped are invested back into the system to benefit patients and our approach has not been to the detriment of the high quality patient care and patient experience we are able to provide.
“There has not been any impact on the number of non-UK residents coming through the system for treatment but we do now identify non-eligible patients sooner, and at a higher volume than previously.”
Dr Mark Porter from the British Medical Association expressed doubt as to whether the NHS would be able to cope with the changes in reality.
He said: “It is right that we ensure all patients are eligible for NHS care and that we have in place a working system to recoup the cost of treatment from patients not ordinarily resident in the UK.
‘Sowing chaos and confusion’
“However, it’s hard to see how these new proposals will operate in practice, especially as they are to implemented by law.
“There is no detail as to how upfront charging will be introduced from scratch in just three months in an NHS already unable to cope with normal operations.
“We need to be careful not to demonise overseas patients or sow chaos and confusion within the NHS. Doctors and nurses cannot be expected to arbitrarily decide whether a patient gets treatment or not.”
He added that there is “patchy evidence” for the £500m savings, highlighting that this is a fairly small sum in relation to the “enormous funding crisis” the healthcare service is currently facing.