The British Medical Association (BMA) has voted to abandon fees for all foreign patients using NHS services.
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The BMA voted during its annual conference in Belfast, to get rid of all fees that apply to foreign patients using the National Health Service (NHS).
The British Medical Association is the trade union and professional body for about 156,000 doctors and 19,000 medical students in the UK.
The conference in Belfast had up to 500 delegates who voted for the motion to stop charging foreign patients.
The next step will be for the BMA to lobby the government for a change in the law so that no NHS service will be required to check on whether or not any patient is eligible.
What that in effect means, is that all NHS healthcare will be free to the world as long as they can get into the country. So, if you need healthcare and can afford the airfare for a holiday, then get yourself to the UK.
Now, the BMA delegates arguing for this said it was not cost effective to check on patient eligibility for free healthcare as it was just a drop in the bucket. They also called it racist to do so and Dr Omar Risk is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying:
"We are doctors not border guards. Charging migrants for accessing NHS services is a fundamentally racist endeavour – we are complicit in the oppressive regime."
And the proposer of the motion, Dr Jack Appleby, said it was a form of 'racial profiling'.
And those doctors that voiced opposition were booed.
The normal eligibility, is that all those attending A&E or a GP get seen for free.
But for other procedures you either need to be ordinarily resident in the UK for a minimum of six months or, if you are an EU citizen, have an EHIC card.
Now, I will point out that many BMA members work in private practice either solely or in addition to their NHS work.
And an article in the Independent from 2015 points out that back in 2013 the private healthcare market in the UK was worth £7 billion.
And the first question I have is, if foreign patients turned up at those private practices without proof that they had paid in to their private system, would they receive the healthcare they needed free at the point of delivery because the cost was just a drop in the overall bucket? Or would there be a robust gatekeeping system that ejected them?
Also, if all NHS healthcare is effectively free in the UK, it could well encourage a surge in health tourism putting extra un-budgeted for strain on the NHS. In fact it could kick-start a whole health tourism industry that the taxpayer could never match.
This could well have two outcomes as waiting times and workload increased:
The first is that many of the wealthier people in the UK will start to look at private healthcare and associated insurances as the alternative for them and their families and more employers might offer it as a work bonus.
The second is it might well lead to doctors working in a strained NHS looking at the greener grass of now a burgeoning private healthcare system as the answer to their employment overload.
So, we would get an increase in workload for the NHS and fewer doctors working in it, while the private healthcare sector profited – a downward spiral that affects the poor.
And what would happen if we ended up with people travelling to the UK with communicable diseases in the hope of a free cure?
Now, many of the more mercenary minded in the BMA might be content with this. And don't think that just because they are doctors they are not money minded. In the Independent article I've already referred to, a cardiologist, Dr John Dean said that doctors working in private practice had a direct adverse effect on the NHS. And he went on to say that it actually caused a perverse incentive to increase NHS waiting times. Think about that.
Dr Dean also said:
"I realised that, in all conscience, I could not go on with it. No matter how high I set my own moral and ethical standards I could not escape the fact that I was involved in a business where the conduct of some was so venal, it bordered on criminal – the greedy preying on the needy."
So, be in no doubt that for some an overloaded and creaking NHS is a very profitable business opportunity.
For me, keeping the cost of health tourism as low as possible and using proper checks will keep our NHS safe by preventing a situation such as I outline above from coming about.
And checks apply to everyone, so it's not about race.