The UK May Require Passport Identification for Medical Treatment
UK doctors have reacted strongly to rumors suggesting that government agencies may require those seeking NHS treatment to show their passports, all in a bid to stop so-called “medical tourism.”
Chris Wormald of the Department of Health told MPs that he was exploring a system in which suspected migrants would be investigated — including undergoing identification and passport screenings — before they could access hospital tests and non-emergency treatment.
This approach has already been tested on a small scale at various locations in the UK — and it has been heavily criticized. However, supporters say the strategy is necessary to reach government targets for the health budget.
Regardless, high ranking doctors swiftly condemned this latest proposal.
The Guardian reports:
Dr Simon Stallworthy described it as “disgusting”, saying it was not the role of the NHS to be “actively working to kick migrants out”.
In an email to the Guardian he added: “Many doctors would boycott it. The NHS is founded on the principle that healthcare should be free and accessible to all and that we, as doctors, make our decisions about what’s best for our patients without external influence or pressure. Being forced to become part of immigration services and actively blocking vulnerable people from accessing much-needed healthcare is fundamentally incompatible with the ethical and moral obligations placed on us as doctors.
Others have threatened to refuse to implement the policy if it is brought into force, claiming that it betrays the very foundations of the NHS.
Health tourism: A costly problem?
It is undeniable that every year some people will visit the UK in order to take advantage of the National Health Service. The Conservative government, which has made clamping down on immigration a central feature of its ethos, contends that this trend creates a hefty price tag for tax payers.
Conservative media outlets have similarly highlighted this pattern over the years. For example, many have covered reports that put costs at between £60 million and £80 million a year — though critics say that due to the way in which the government tracks health tourism, the true figures could be higher.
Occasionally, some critical voices highlight a 2015 government report that contained a £1.8 billion figure for the total price tag of people defrauding the NHS. But as the BBC points out that this was not just related to health tourism, so it does not give an accurate picture of the problem either.
Many on the political left dismiss the health tourism panic.
While undeniably there is an issue at hand, when put in context of overall spending, it is actually slight.
For example, median health tourism spending works out to be an incredibly small amount of the NHS’ overall budget — the New Statesman puts it at about 0.06 percent of the £109bn budget. Also, keep in mind that some of that money is routinely recouped when the NHS identifies people who do not qualify for treatment and bills them accordingly.
Given that the NHS is currently at a stage where it needs all the resources it can get, we might argue that recouping any and all money is necessary.
That’s not necessarily incorrect, but campaigners maintain that this clampdown on health tourism isn’t, in fact, financially motivated. The government, they argue, could easily fill the gap in funding if it really wanted to.
And this says nothing of the £22 billion in cuts to the NHS that the government itself plans to make — but rather, the government’s overall anti-immigration stance.
When policy fans the flames of xenophobia and racism
Arguing figures becomes a convenient way for us to fail to address the fact that health tourism involves real people. Any policy surrounding this issue is not just going to apply to people suspected of defrauding the NHS, but also to the UK’s citizens across the board.
We need, therefore, to be very clear about what could occur in an “ID papers for treatment” scenario, and it is worrisome.
Let’s be honest: people who are definably white are unlikely to be checked. Those with a foreign accent or who are non-white certainly will be more likely to undergo screened.
The obvious problem here is that such a strategy quickly lends itself to anti-immigrant sentiment and open racism. It creates one class of people who automatically deserve treatment — people who pass for British, whatever that means — and those who do not.
The latter category will involve British citizens who are non-white, as well as lawful migrants and undocumented migrants. Furthermore, while the initial proposal does not cover GP care, this slope truly is a slippery one.
Besides the ideological concerns, hefty as they are, there are solid reasons in terms of health policy why this is a bad idea.
The “passports to be treated” approach may create a barrier to people coming forward and seeking treatment for infections like HIV. Even if the policy doesn’t apply in all cases, the threat of it could still be enough to keep people away. And this isn’t just bad for those individuals — it’s bad for the entire population.
Additionally, women who require pregnancy care may fear that they do not qualify, even if they are in the country legally.
Medical treatment cannot — and should not — ever be a branch of immigration policing. To do so is to undermine the integrity of the service. Furthermore, it is an indulgence to xenophobia and racism that the UK — particularly given the post-Brexit vote climate – cannot afford.
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