Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt this week quashed rumours that Britain will adopt entitlement cards in a bid to halt abuse of the National Health Service.
Speaking at his monthly surgery at Sainsbury’s in Farnham, the MP for South West Surrey explained how the idea, proposed by Labour MP Frank Field and Hunt’s fellow Conservative Nicholas Soames, was “very controversial.”
He went on to say “We do want to make sure there is not abuse of the NHS…but we would want to explore every other avenue before we went down that particular one.”
According to Mr Hunt, the scheme would involve potential patients being asked to present an entitlement card upon receipt of medical care, with those unable to do so being “open to investigation by the Immigration Service”; a call previously made by former Shadow Health Secretary, Liam Fox.
Immigrants who have resided in the country for one year or more however, would be entitled to free care from the cash-strapped health service, as they would not be considered ‘health tourists’ due to their permanent residence.
With new EU ‘freedom of movement’ regulations coming in to force in early 2014 permitting Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants to live and work in the UK, the head of the NHS is in a race against time to find an alternative option to ensure no unnecessary pressure is put on a health system already struggling from crippling Coalition budget cuts.
Such a delicate issue would clearly divide public opinion and would undoubtedly present a case that the European Union, which is largely unpopular amongst Brits, would have to answer to.
Broadcaster Sonia Poulton explained how she is completely opposed to the idea because the NHS “should be available at the point of need.” She added, “It is obscene to deem people ‘entitled’ to medical assistance” although she conceded that it was probably just another way to ‘demonise’ immigrants who come to live in the UK.
Twitter user ‘@liarpolitcians’ agrees with Poulton, suggesting that patients should be asked for their National Insurance (NI) number and if they cannot produce the required document, they would be made to pay for treatment via credit or debit card. Alternatively, those without a NI number would be offered basic, emergency care only.
The European Commission has already questioned Britain’s ‘Habitual Residency Test’ which, in the words of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau ‘tests to make sure that if you’re planning to claim benefits, you’ve a legal right to be here…to settle here and make it your home.’ This stance indicates they would not ratify any of the said changes to the test, should Britain make any.
Kent University Politics student, Ian Perrin, has mixed feelings about the proposal however. Whilst he feels it could be beneficial in the future, he admits that it comes across “like it’s trying to scare off foreign workers…in a time where we need to focus on economic recovery.”
This recent proposal echoes the Labour Party idea from the early years of Tony Blair’s premiership whereby ID cards were to be issued in a bid to curb illegal immigration in the UK. Even so, despite good intentions, concerns of civil liberties were raised and ultimately the programme failed.
The £5 billion scheme was eventually axed by the Coalition government in 2010 with figures reported by the Daily Mail suggesting that ‘just 15,000 cards were issued’, equating to a cost of an embarrassing £17,000 EACH.
The NHS is no stranger to ID cards nonetheless; with few people aware of the fact that it was formed on the basis of presenting a card in order to receive treatment in the post-war years from 1948, according to journalist SA Mathieson’s new book Card declined.
In addition to his comments regarding ‘entitlement cards’, Mr Hunt told constituents that the biggest issue surrounding the NHS currently is “the way we respond to the appalling tragedy at Mid-Staffs Hospital.” He highlighted the need for a “culture of compassionate care in every hospital the way it is in our best hospitals.”