Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Migrants already ‘pay their way’ – why should they have to pay medical bills too?

Plans to charge non-EU nationals for treatment will undermine the NHS – and could force them to choose between their health and paying the rent, writes Michael Pooler

January 1, 2014
5 min read

Instead of the usual setting of family, food and merriment, this year I spent much of the festive season making visits to a hospital ward full of very sick people.

A week before Christmas, my partner went to the local A&E department complaining of faintness, blurry vision and a raised heartbeat, following two weeks of a persistent flu. It was clear that something was seriously wrong after she was admitted to the acute care unit for a series of tests, scans and examinations.

My blood ran cold that Thursday afternoon as she told me in a wan voice over the phone that the doctors believed a virus had infected her heart, causing inflammation of the wall and vastly diminishing its capacity, and that it might be in her brain, too. The heavy duty medicines needed left her intensely weak, unable to eat and with extreme nausea – a horrible sight to see a person in. It’s not the kind of thing you expect to happen to an otherwise healthy 29-year-old.

Things have gradually improved since. Although a full recovery is still far off, thankfully she is now (slowly) on the mend. This is in no small measure down to the impeccable care and treatment she has received over the last two weeks, from staff whose conscientious approach has set my mind at rest in the long hours between visiting times.

When a loved one falls seriously ill it can feel as though life is put on hold temporarily; and it is a virtue of British society that worries about paying medical bills do not add to the anxiety and stress. Yet for people like my partner, a Turkish national who has lived in the UK for around nine years on-and-off, that principle of free healthcare at the point of delivery may soon be a thing of the past – for no other reason than the lottery of birth.

A policy based on myths

Under new rules proposed by the coalition government, people from outside the European Economic Area – which counts the EU plus a few other European countries – staying legally in the UK would have to pay for some emergency services and other treatments as part of a drive to claw back £500 million from foreigners.

Nobody will be refused live-saving treatment and GP consultations will remain free for all. But in addition to a £200 healthcare ‘levy’ to be charged on top of visas, non-European migrants will have to pay for certain treatment and increased prescription fees. Hospitals will be forced to recover costs from those not entitled – which also includes asylum seekers, temporary visitors and unlawful migrants.

The government says the policy is about ensuring that migrants make a fair contribution to the NHS, as well as deterring so-called ‘health tourists’ who make short visits to the UK to gain access to services they aren’t entitled to. Legal migrants and people here illegally from outside Europe cost around £1.4 billion in expenditure annually, around half of which is currently recoverable from them or their governments. But its rationale is founded on and feeds into the popular myth that migrants take more from the UK than they give – a myth nourished by politicians and parts of the media that is poisoning the tone of political debate.

Take my partner for instance. She paid much higher tuition fees to study at a London university than EU nationals do and has since contributed to the exchequer through income tax and national insurance payments. She pays council tax, VAT and yet her visa stipulates ‘no state aid’ – meaning she is not entitled to any form of welfare benefits, except free NHS and GP services. It also effectively restricts her to self-employment, as few employers are willing to fork out the hefty sponsorship fee required to take on foreign workers like her.

‘Health tourism’?

This hardly adds up to the stereotypical image that the government is painting of a ‘scrounging foreigner’ jumping straight off the plane and into an ambulance. And yet her example is the rule rather than the exception.

Contrary to the common view of immigration as a drain on the UK economy, people arriving since 1999 are 45 per cent less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives, according to a study by University College London published in November. Researchers also found that immigrants from outside the EEA contributed 2 per cent more in taxes than they received in the same period on average. By contrast, British people paid 11 per cent less in taxes than they received.

It’s a similar tale in healthcare. Department of Health figures show that while accounting for 4.5 per cent of the population in England, European and non-European visitors and migrants are only responsible for 2p in every pound of NHS expenditure (although this was 7p in the case of maternity services). Each year the average overseas visitors or migrant cost the NHS £690, compared with £1,730 a head for the resident English population.

Without doubt there are instances of ‘health tourism’, but even the government admits there are ‘very limited’ robust data to back its assertions of widespread abuse of the system. Cost estimates range wildly between £70 and £300 million. In the face of warnings from the British Medical Association that the revenues won’t even cover the cost of administration, ministers nevertheless appear hell-bent on driving the policy through.

The charges will inevitably hit those on lowest incomes hardest, punishing poor families and individuals entitled to little or no incapacity or unemployment benefit. A person like my partner who has long lived in and contributed to the UK could face the stark choice of paying a medical bill or the rent. Non-European migrants today, but who will be forced to pay next? If we don’t want to live in a country where financial consequences of illness can shatter lives and tear apart families and relationships, then the narrative must be reclaimed.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


113