The House of Commons has just heard the first reading of a Bill that would require the NHS to record and audit the cost of treatment of individuals not entitled to free healthcare and of foreign nationals under the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) scheme and other reciprocal agreements. The Bill is being promoted by the Conservative MP, Henry Smith.

With figures for the last available year indicating that the UK paid out £1.7 billion, under the EHIC scheme alone, for the treatment of British nationals abroad, whilst recovering back only £125 million from qualifying countries, the Bill has been prompted by a concern that the NHS budget is being unfairly burdened.

Governments of all political hue, though repeatedly expressing disquiet about the existing regulations and their application, have consistently failed to reach agreement on what changes, if any, should be made to the regime for charging overseas visitors for primary and secondary care. The last Government response to a consultation – in March 2011 – concluded that a more wide-ranging review of the rules leading to a further consultation, was the answer! Consultations – like Governments – come and go but, in the meantime, clarity remains an elusive quantity and the applicable rules seem as complex and unwieldy as ever, despite the appearance of revised regulations in 2011.

This Bill, according to Mr Smith, would set out qualifying residency criteria for eligibility for free NHS care, extend current charging regimes to primary care, create more efficient and effective processes to screen for eligibility, and establish more robust methods of securing the recovery of treatment costs. Altogether, he envisages these measures saving the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

The Bill will have its second reading on 1 March 2013.