Tourists cost NHS up to pounds 5m a year

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OVERSEAS visitors from countries which charge British tourists for medical treatment are getting free emergency treatment in the UK, costing hard-pressed NHS hospitals up to pounds 5m a year.

A team of senior doctors at St Mary's Hospital, London, which treated 3,000 tourists in its casualty unit, have called for compulsory insurance for the visitors.

The UK has reciprocal agreements with 38 countries which entitle visitors from Britain to a refund for medical treatment abroad. In all other countries British tourists have to pay in full.

But under NHS guidelines all patients, regardless of nationality, receive full free accident and emergency treatment. However, an audit carried out by a medical team at St Mary's showed that the cost of treating visitors from countries without the agreement was pounds 120,000 a year.

In a report in the Journal of Accident and Emergency Medicine, consultant Dr Jane Fothergill and the team say : "No one would question that all patients should be treated; many question whether the British taxpayer should foot the bill."

The report says that compulsory health insurance may be a solution, adding : "At St Mary's the annual saving of pounds 121,700 would be used to improve standards of care, such as by reducing waiting times in accident and emergency units for visitors as well as for resident patients."