The UK has introduced a bill to protect healthcare for “190,000 expats and 50 million people who travel abroad every year” after Brexit.

The Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill aims to guard healthcare provision abroad for UK citizens following the country’s withdrawal from the European Union. 

The bill, first read in parliament on 26 October, will establish mutual healthcare agreements between the UK and the EU, or its individual member states, according to a statement by the Department for Health and Social Care.

UK citizens are able to access healthcare anywhere in the European Economic Area using either an “S1 form”, which carries health insurance benefits across borders, or an “S2 form” to obtain planned health treatment in another EU country.

The new bill intends to lay down the legal framework to protect these benefits following the UK’s departure from the EU.

More specifically, the new law would grant the health secretary the power to make payments in respect of the cost of healthcare provided outside the UK. This includes specifying exactly who may receive UK-funded healthcare treatment abroad, setting out the types of healthcare that will be provided and paid for, and amending, repealing or revoking retained EU law.

Currently the health secretary has only very limited statutory power to pay for treatment abroad and recover costs from other states when their citizens are treated in the UK.

According to the Department for Health and Social Care, the bill would also allow the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) scheme to continue after 2020, provided that the EU agrees. The scheme affords EU nationals, including those from the UK, access to free healthcare across the bloc when visiting or studying in other member states.

Lincoln Tsang, life sciences partner at Arnold & Porter, however told PLN “there is no basis for the EHIC to continue after Brexit because the UK is no longer part of the EU.”

“The current bill is to give power to the secretary of state to enter reciprocal arrangements with the EU but there is no requirement for the EU to accept,” he added. “Following Brexit, UK citizens living, studying and working in an EU member state will have to take out their own arrangements for healthcare provision as the current EU healthcare system will no longer apply to them.”

“The bill does not provide a lot of substance as the detail will be provided in the secondary legislation after the primary legislation is passed by parliament,” Tsang said. “Of course, if Brexit does not occur, there is no need for the bill to be enacted in UK domestic law as the EU healthcare system requires member states to accept reciprocal healthcare agreements.”

The bill follows an “urgent” call from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry earlier this month that UK MPs strike a deal with the EU to protect the country’s patients post-Brexit. The European Medicines Agency, meanwhile, continued its legal battle against Canary Wharf in London over its decision to relocate to Amsterdam.

The date of the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons is yet to be announced.