Failed asylum seekers will get free NHS care in U-turn to protect human rights that 'could attract 1m'
By Daniel Martin
NHS treatment will be available for tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers to ensure their human rights are honoured, it was announced yesterday.
At present, they are denied free treatment if an asylum bid has been turned down but they have not left the country.
But a Government U-turn means failed applicants who are destitute or cannot return home 'through no fault of their own', will be entitled to free care.
The decision increases the numbers potentially able to use the NHS by tens of thousands. But the campaign group MigrationWatch believes it could open the floodgates to 'up to a million' illegal immigrants.
Last night doctors undermined the strategy by saying it was not their job to act as immigration officers - raising the possibility that GPs would refuse to ask failed asylum seekers tough questions about their status.
There are understood to be around 450,000 failed asylum seekers who have not left the country, although only 10 or 20,000 are directly affected by the new rules.
Yesterday Health Minister Ann Keen presented the measures which include the new clause as an attempt to end health tourism, where residents from poorer countries travel to Britain for treatment, as well as maintaining the Government's commitment to human rights.
In a written statement to the Commons, she said: 'Persons seeking refuge or asylum are already exempted from charges for the duration of their application, including the full appeal process.
'The Government has not been persuaded that this full exemption should be extended to all whose application has failed but have not yet left the country.
Health Minister Ann Keen presented the measures as an attempt to end health tourism
'It has however recognised the case for those whose claim has been refused but who are being supported by the UK Border Agency because they would otherwise-be destitute, have children-and/or because it is impossible-to return home through no fault of their own.
'It is therefore proposed that an exemption from charges is extended to this group.'
Health tourism is understood to cost the NHS more than £200million a year. Most countries have social insurance systems where patients are expected to prove they can pay before being treated. But our NHS is free at the point of need.
Mrs Keen said ministers wanted to see rules which would mean foreigners with significant debts to the NHS being banned from entering Britain.
She is also 'investigating the longer-term feasibility' of introducing a requirement that everyone entering the country would have to have health insurance.
Mrs Keen said: 'These changes will support a clearer and fairer system of access to free NHS services that will maintain the confidence of the public and prevent inappropriate access, while maintaining our commitment to human rights.'
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch, said the rules gave the green light for up to one million illegal immigrants to get free NHS care.
This is possible because GPs can put patients on their books without checking if they are entitled to free care.
Sir Andrew said: 'This is yet another capitulation to the immigration lobby. No wonder they are queueing up in Calais.'
The British Medical Association said all failed asylum seekers should be treated free - and that it was not their job to decide who is eligible for free care and who is not.
Head of ethics Dr Vivienne Nathanson said: 'There are many who have had an asylum claim refused, cannot return home and need urgent treatment. This announcement, while positive, applies to only one group and does not go far enough.'
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