Tuesday, 5 March 2013

When omission is a lie: The Sun and EU healthcare


We all hear or read EU horror stories in the media. Many are distorted versions of the truth, some are pure fabrication. MEPs spend considerable time refuting incorrect stories, as so many exist. My South East colleague, Catherine Bearder, has even set up a "Euromyths" page on her website  for this purpose.

Catherine alerted me to such a misleading (to say the least) article recently in the Sun "newspaper" on EU citizens obtaining medical care paid for by the NHS "http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4809970/Polish-doctors-are-billing-Britain-1M-for-more-than-500-pregnant-mums-who-snubbed-NHS-and-flew-home-to-give-birth.html".

The article was about EU citizens resident in the UK choosing to return to their country of origin for medical treatment, paid for by the NHS. This is possible under EU rules on the coordination of social security systems and patient mobility.  It requires, however, that individuals wishing to use this procedure must:

- be eligible for NHS treatment;
- get prior approval from their local NHS;
- pay costs upfront and claim them back later, claiming back only what would have been available on the NHS (so travel costs or private rooms would not be covered).


The article gave the impression that somehow this was at the expense of "UK taxpayers" while of course ignoring the fact that the EU citizens concerned are UK taxpayers themselves.

The article omitted to mention that there is two-way traffic in this EU free movement of patients as British citizens living abroad and EU citizens living outside the UK can use the same procedure to obtain NHS treatment, the cost of which is then reimbursed by the healthcare system of their country of residence. For example, British and Irish citizens resident in Ireland, who come to the UK for NHS treatment, get the cost of their treatment paid for by the Irish healthcare system.

The Sun also ignored the fact that British citizens use this procedure to obtain treatment in other EU countries. There have even been court cases that have confirmed the right of British citizens to obtain, for example, a hip replacement in another EU country if they would suffer undue delay in obtaining one via their local NHS.  The Sun made a freedom of information request to the Department of Health, but apparently forgot to ask or chose not to publish how many Brits use this procedure and how much money the NHS receives from other countries through it. 

I spoke privately to a Department of Health official who expressed the opinion that the UK might actually be a net beneficiary from this procedure. In addition, the official agreed with me that given that many of the EU citizens resident in the UK seek treatment in countries with cheaper healthcare, such as Poland, it may even save the NHS money!

The Sun found a Conservative MP who said this was "a power that should be taken back from Europe". Given the appalling lack of knowledge of the EU of the average Conservative MP, one supposes that the chap concerned probably doesn't realise that Brits also use this procedure when NHS waiting lists are too long and that the NHS receives money from other healthcare systems through it. I could imagine the same MP being outraged if a British pensioner in Spain wanting medical treatment "at home" was refused reimbursement of NHS treatment by the Spanish healthcare system!

Of course, the facts I mention above significantly weaken the anti-EU bent of the article and don't fit the editorial bias of the Sun, so I understand why they chose to omit them. Such blatantly selective journalism is yet another example of the "clear evidence of misreporting on European issues" mentioned by Lord Leveson in his report (page 687).

Another myth busted!

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