Proposals to charge tourists and migrants for NHS services could have ‘unintended drawbacks’ on patients and the health service, the BMA has warned.The Government is consulting on plans to extend charges for certain services such as primary and emergency care, under the Visitor and Migrant NHS Cost Recovery Programme.
BMA council chair Mark Porter has warned that the changes could lead to confusion. He said it would be unacceptable to create a climate where any patient with a serious health need was deterred from seeing a doctor owing to cost.
He said: “It is important that anyone accessing NHS services is entitled to do so. However, the Government’s proposals could create unintended drawbacks for the NHS and patients.
“There could be confusion with access entitlements to emergency care services, given the proposals introduce charging for [emergency department] visits yet say no patients will be turned away if they need care.
“Similarly, while patients won't have to pay for GP appointments, they may have to pay for follow-up tests and treatment.
“Most importantly, there is a real risk that some migrants and short-term visitors who desperately need care could be discouraged from approaching the NHS if they cannot pay.
“We cannot have a situation where any patient with a serious health need is deterred from seeing a doctor, especially if their condition raises a potential public health risk.”
In announcing the consultation, the Government has said that applying charges to overseas visitors could help to recover up to £500m per year by 2017/18.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said the proposals would have no impact on permanent UK residents, and that exemptions for vulnerable groups such as refugees, and those with illnesses posing a threat to public health, would remain in place.
He said: “The proposals explored in the consultation aim to support the principle of fairness by ensuring those not resident of the UK who can pay for NHS care do so.
“The recovery of up to £500m per year will contribute to the £22bn savings required to ensure the long-term sustainability of the NHS.’
Dr Porter, however, said that the changes could end up generating more costs than savings.
He said: “Not only will this arrangement cause confusion among patients, it will also require GPs and hospital doctors to spend more time on the paperwork and bureaucracy needed to regulate these charges.
“This could mean the administration of the new system could end up costing more to run than it collects in revenue.”