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Vote Leave terribly confused on “health tourism”

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 05.04.2016

“Health tourism from the EU has cost us billions”. That, at least, is what Gisela Stuart said on April 5. In fact, the Vote Leave chair has got things terribly mixed up. 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. What’s more, if we quit the EU, it’s doubtful these payments would drop.

There is a two-way flow of funds. Britain pays EU countries when our citizens use their health services, and vice versa. The figures provided by Stuart’s own organisation, Vote Leave, show how confused she is. It says 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. Where locals get healthcare for free, the UK government pays for this treatment. Similarly, when EU tourists get healthcare on the NHS, their government foots the bill.

A second scheme means that when Britons retire on a state pension in the EEA, the UK government pays for their healthcare. 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.

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. That would hardly seem sensible given that relations would already be strained by Brexit.

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.

Vote Leave did not respond to requests for comment

* EU plus Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland

Edited by Hugo Dixon

3 Responses to “Vote Leave terribly confused on “health tourism””

  • Thank you for the quiet tone and careful manner in which all these pieces are written. We need that so much in Europe (and the US …) these days.

    But in the piece on cross-border healthcare and who foots the bill, the line of reasoning appears incomplete. You say: “The figures provided by Stuart’s own organisation, Vote Leave, show how confused she is.”, then go on to quote Vote Leave’s apparent assertion that “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.” and subsequently proceed to explain how the EU / EEA’s system for cross-border healthcare charges works — but all that information, useful though it is, does not seem to support your remark that Vote Leave is confused about the figures.

    • I believe the writer is referring to the statement from Vote Leave that health tourism has cost billions, implying EU citizens coming to the UK cost the UK government billions , when in fact the difference is the cost of paying for UK citizen’s healthcare in other EU states. So far more UK citizens use the healthcare systems of other states than EU citizens do in the UK. Vote Leave don’t realise that the “health tourists” are in fact the British! Vote Leave are confused about who is paying for what. The Brexiters will use any figures to show how badly off the UK is, even if the facts are misinterpreted. It is just enough to cement in the minds of the public the idea that they are paying for Johnny Foreigner to use the NHS with emotive language such as ‘health tourism.’ I would not be surprised if the big supporters of Brexit have a financial interest in a rampant corporate takeover of health provision in the UK free from EU interference.