Many expats fail to realise that they can lose the right to state healthcare under the NHS system when they move abroad. In fact, it’s commonplace amongst expats to think that if they become poorly abroad they can simply hop on a plane, pop home and have treatment. Whilst hospitals and doctors in the UK are more likely to treat you than not and not charge you, you may get away with it, but you are not necessarily within your rights to do so.
However, a consultation has been launched by the Department of Health to examine whether actually the NHS should be more lenient with those Brits who spend some of their time overseas, and instead of penalising them financially if they return for treatment, costs should be applied to foreign visitors instead to prevent so-called health tourists from visiting Britain for treatment and draining the NHS further.
The consultation is welcome as far as expats are concerned – and perhaps timely as we’re aware how badly performing many NHS trusts are as they are so underfunded. If the UK can find a way to treat its citizens fairly but charge foreign visitors for care instead, surely that makes sense?
As it stands, if you spend three months or more abroad and then ‘come home’ for non-emergency care and treatment, you may be forced to pay for your care. The consultation is proposing that this three month period be extended to six, and this will mean that many of those who work abroad, retire some of the time overseas or regularly travel or live outside of the country can have free NHS treatment should they need it upon their return.
The consultation has already revealed that only about 1,500 cases a year come to light of those who are regularly abroad, sometimes in the UK and occasionally in need of NHS treatment. Therefore, these proposed changes will hardly break the bank – but will mean positive and welcome changes for expatriates living at least part of the time overseas.
At the same time, the consultation is keen to begin exploring charging foreign temporary visitors to the UK for any care they receive under the NHS. At the moment, there is no obligation on anyone to have health insurance in place if they visit the UK – what’s more, even those who do are seldom charged by an NHS hospital or doctor if they arrive seeking treatment. The consultation proposes that this situation could change, with health insurance becoming either required or advisable for all visitors to the UK in the future.
This would then allow any clinician to charge for care given, with the health insurance provider footing the bill and putting some welcome cash into the NHS. As the NHS is suffering so badly that it cannot even treat patients with the care and dignity they deserve, (see the findings of the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Inquiry), it may well be a positive gesture to ask those who are visitors to this country to pay for non-emergency care they receive on the NHS, to prevent health tourism, and to stop those who are not entitled from draining what little resources are available to British residents and temporary expatriates.