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Mythbust

Health tourism hasn’t cost us billions

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 12.04.2016

Myth: Health tourism from the EU has cost us billions

InFacts: It is actually British tourists and pensioners using medical services in the EU that cost us billions. Quitting the bloc wouldn’t save this money.

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While the chair of Vote Leave thinks “Health tourism from the EU has cost us billions”, the billions that the UK has paid other EU countries in recent years for health treatment is down to the fact that British tourists and pensioners are big users of their medical services. If we quit the EU, it’s doubtful these payments would drop.

Britain pays EU countries when our citizens use their health services, and vice versa. The UK pays £723 million more a year to EU countries for treating its citizens than EU countries pay the UK for treating their citizens. Spain, Ireland and France account for the bulk of the payments.

EU law means that British travelling in the European Economic Area* (EEA) and Switzerland get emergency treatment on the same terms as a local. A second scheme means that when Britons retire on a state pension in the EEA, the UK government pays for their healthcare, and when Europeans retire here, their governments pay their medical bills.

Neither of these programmes lets people travel to the UK deliberately to get free treatment.

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If we quit the EU, we’d have two choices. Either we could try to continue these schemes, in which case nothing would change.

Alternatively, we could terminate them. But that would cause a lot of anguish for Brits who have retired elsewhere in the EU, as well as those travelling abroad who need emergency treatment. It would also create another barrier between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.What’s more, scrapping these arrangements wouldn’t save much, if anything. After all, British pensioners living in Spain and France would still need medical care. If they could no longer get it for free where they were living, they might come back to the UK. Not only would we not save money; they would add to NHS overcrowding.

* EU plus Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland

This article is an adaptation of a piece that previously appeared on Infacts

Edited by Hugo Dixon