By Sarah Collins - 2nd July 2008
The European commission has released plans to legalise the right of patients to travel to another European country for medical treatment.
The plan, originally set for release last December, means EU citizens can choose whether to go abroad for care without the prior authorisation of a consultant.
Launching the directive on the application of patient rights in cross-border healthcare on Wednesday, commissioner for health Androula Vassiliou said, “Recently a lot has been said about the need to bring the EU closer to its citizens. That’s exactly what we’re doing today.”
The Cypriot commissioner says that one per cent of national health budgets is currently devoted to cross-border care, and doesn’t see this number rising with the introduction of the directive. “Addressing this issue doesn’t mean promoting mobility as such,” Vassiliou told journalists.
“We are simply clarifying the rights of patients as enshrined in the treaty and as decided by the European court of justice.”
But critics say that the plans could impose a heavy burden on national health providers to pay for care they haven’t given.
British MEP Liz Lynne said, “Clearly, a balance needs to be struck as the [UK's] NHS is not in a position to pay for more expensive treatment abroad on demand, but if a clinician advises treatment and this cannot be provided at home, then the NHS will have to cough up.”
However, under the proposals, health services will only have to pay the value of health they would provide at home, and governments will be able to get permission from the EU to reinstate the requirement for prior authorisation if they can prove their health systems are being harmed by the changes.
For Vassiliou, “It allows excessive demand in one country to be met by excessive capacity in another. This is the essence of cooperation.”
But Irish MEP Kathy Sinnot told this website in advance of the release of the proposals that she feared the directive would benefit the rich over the poor.
“It will be open to people not desperately in need, who are maybe computer-savvy and can afford to pay up front,” she said.
However, ALDE group leader Graham Watson welcomed the move, saying, “Although it will not create new entitlements, this directive will make it easier for patients to exercise their rights and will ensure equal access to cross-border healthcare.
“For Liberals and Democrats this long-overdue directive is a step towards the free movement of patients.”