Foreign patients to be charged upfront
Patients from abroad are to be charged upfront for any non-urgent treatment on the NHS.
The new rules will apply from April this year and all hospitals will be told to check if patients are eligible for free NHS treatment before they receive any treatment.
They will then be required to share that information across the NHS. The upfront charges have been introduced because some patients cannot pay once treatment has been carried out.
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 ˆ500m a year by the middle of this Parliament - money that can then be reinvested in patient care."
Dr Meirion Thomas has welcomed the proposals saying he believed the NHS was being exploited by so called 'health tourists'.
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He told Sky News: "It is essential that people are forced to present their passports, and not just their passports but their utility bills too.
"The total cost of health tourism is ˆ2bn a year. We just cannot afford this any longer. The healthcare system is in crisis. I have been saying this for a long time. This is long overdue."
But some of Dr Thomas' medical colleagues disagree. They say the NHS is already in crisis and rushing through these new regulations will place further strain on the system.
The British Medical Association said: "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."
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Some charities are worried vulnerable groups like asylum seekers will be driven away from seeking medical care in hospitals.
Shyamantha Asokan, from Doctors Of The World, fears the new rules will penalise those most in need of care.
She said: "Immigration and health care are two completely separate things. As soon as someone is in this country and are ill they have the right to go to the hospital or got to the doctor.
"We run clinics in the UK that see people who are really vulnerable: asylum seekers, homeless people, victims of human trafficking who are already too scared to go to a hospital.
"So putting up more barriers is just going to make that worse. Not only is it inhumane but if people leave their problems until it is an emergency and they go to A&E that's actually more expensive for the NHS."
She added: "Many of the doctors we work with don't want to act as border guards.
"They don't want to pick and choose patients in terms of income and immigration status. They just want to treat the patient that's in front of them."
But the Government has dismissed these fears, promising: "The NHS will not deny urgent and immediately necessary healthcare to those in need, regardless of payment.
"Exemptions from charging will also remain in place for the diagnosis and treatment of specified infectious diseases in order to protect the public. We have clear exemptions in place for vulnerable groups such as refugees and asylum seekers."
The Department Of Health says it hopes to recover ˆ500m a year by charging overseas patients and this will contribute "to the ˆ22bn of savings required in this Spending Review period to ensure the long-term sustainability of the NHS".
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