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NHS should reimburse EU health tourists, says court

Tight finances should not delay treatment if there is a medical need, advises ECJ

UK citizens who decide to have an operation overseas because their treatment cannot be carried out at home within the set time limit, should be reimbursed for the extra expense, the European Union's highest court has ruled.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg said the NHS should refund patients who waited longer than the time advised by their clinician, even if waiting list targets were met.

In a ruling in favour of Yvonne Watts, a British woman in her mid-70s who received a hip replacement in France, the ECJ said budgetary restraints should not delay treatment if there is a medical need.

Mrs Watts was told in September 2002 that she needed a double hip replacement and that she would have to wait about a year for the operation. However, by the end of January 2003, her condition had worsened and a consultant said she needed surgery within three or four months.

Mrs Watts paid nearly ?4,000 for the operation in a hospital in Abbeville but Bedford Primary Care Trust later refused to pay her French medical bill on the grounds that her treatment could have been provided in the UK ìwithout undue delayî.

However, the ECJ did not award Mrs Watts her money, instead ruling that it was up to UK courts to decide if, in her case, she had faced an ìundue delayî.

The Department of Health had argued in court that if all NHS patients were guaranteed reimbursement of their foreign medical costs, the NHS system of administering medical priorities through waiting lists would be ìseriously underminedî.

The ruling applies to citizens of all European member states not just UK citizens seeking treatment in France, according to a European Commission statement.

The ECJ was called in to rule on the case when the English Court of Appeal asked for its guidance.

30th September 2008

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