Health insurers will need to consider allowing overseas treatment

Insurers of private medical, dental and health cash policies have been given a clear warning that they can no longer ignore UK patients wanting to go overseas for treatment. With very few exceptions, most insurers specifically exclude non-emergency medical or dental treatment outside the UK.

The House of Lords EU Committee has welcomed a proposal from the European Commission for a Directive on patients' rights to cross-border healthcare. The Committee agree that as the right of EU citizens to travel to another Member State to receive healthcare has been confirmed by the European Court of Justice over the last ten years, it is essential to put in place a legal framework to replace the current ad hoc arrangements.

Most EU states want patients seeking healthcare in other Member States to pay the costs themselves in advance of treatment and then claim reimbursement later. This would fit in with how several EU health systems work. The report recommends that a patient's own healthcare provider should pay the fees directly to the provider in the other Member State, which would suit insurers. It also suggests that patients must secure authorisation prior to travel, which most EU states have dismissed as unnecessarily bureaucratic.

Baroness Howarth, chair of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Social Policy and Consumer Affairs, says: “We are pleased that the European Commission is proposing to give patients across the EU clear guidance on their right to cross-border healthcare. The current ad hoc arrangements are unsatisfactory and clear new rules are essential. Most patients will still want to be treated locally but everyone will at least have the opportunity to seek healthcare abroad, and to do so in possession of detailed information on what they can expect at each stage of the process. We don't know yet what impact the Directive will have on the numbers of patients wanting to travel to and from the UK for treatment."

THE EU plan makes plain that the foreign hospital could only expect reimbursement to the amount a given operation would cost in the UK. The directive not only covers in- and out-patient treatment, but also extends to dentistry. The EU plan has an implementation target date of 2011.

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