Foreign visitors to the UK could soon have to pay for emergency healthcare such as ambulances and A&E in a "clampdown" on so-called "health tourism". The Department of Health, headed by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is set to introduce the charges as pressure mounts to find extra funds ahead of November's spending review.
The changes could be implemented next month by the Conservative member for south-west Surrey and will apply to all non-British residents. Medical care is expensive, a basic assessment by a doctor in A&E costs the NHS at least £56 while the bill rises to £316 for more extensive care and scans can cost more than £200 each.
So visitors from the EU will be asked to present a European Health Insurance card when treated so that the NHS can send a bill to their government. All those suffering from non-urgent injuries or conditions could be withheld treatment until payment is made.
In April 2015 the British Medical Association warned that the NHS must avoid forcing doctors to work as "border agents". BMA council chair Mark Porter warned that these responsibilities should not interfere with doctors' primary duty — the care of patients.
He said: "Anyone accessing NHS services should be eligible to do so, but a doctor's duty is to treat the patient that's in front on them, not to act as border guard. We must ensure that sick and vulnerable patients aren't deterred from seeking necessary treatment as this can have a knock-on effect on public health."
But The Times estimates that the crackdown could save the UK economy around £500m ($770m), as the government prepares for a shortfall of £30bn in the next parliament. And the plans are expected to go out to consultation in the next few weeks.
A Department of Health spokesman said: "International visitors are welcome to use the NHS, provided they pay for it – just as families living in the UK do through their taxes. This government was the first to introduce tough measures to clamp down on migrants accessing NHS care and have always been clear we want to look at extending charges for non-EEA migrants."
Exemptions will be put in place for refugees and asylum seekers, and pregnant women will not be turned away from maternity units if they have not paid upfront under the proposals. The spokesperson continued: "No one will be denied urgent treatment and vulnerable groups will continue to be exempt from charging."