A loophole in the system is allowing foreign nationals who have never worked in the UK to access medical care at the expense of the NHS.
An investigation by the Daily Mail has revealed that European health insurance cards (EHICs) are being issued to Europeans who claim they live in the UK.
The cards are intended for British people to use in emergencies elsewhere in the EU, and allow the cost of any urgent medical treatment to be charged back to the NHS. To get one, people need to be 'ordinarily resident in the UK'.
But, says the Mail, one card was issued on the basis of a forged tenancy agreement to an undercover reporter from Hungary who had spent less than a day in the UK. She then returned to Hungary, where after showing the card, she was told by several clinics and hospitals that she could have expensive treatments and maternity care paid for on the NHS.
"It is completely unacceptable that people living outside the UK think they can abuse our NHS," says health minister Alistair Burt.
"That's why this government has already introduced tough measures to clamp down on migrants using healthcare without making a contribution, to save half a billion pounds within a few years."
"It's already got around, it's there, it's in the real world. Migrants come into this country and ask for EHIC cards. Their native EHIC cards they don't have, they're not entitled to an EHIC card because they don't make any contribution to the health systems in their country," he said.
"But they all have UK EHIC cards. The reason is they can go back to their own country or travel anywhere in Europe and they have got, basically, health insurance."
More than five million EHICs are issued every year, and are given to EU citizens living in this country as well as Brits themselves. The Department of Health (DoH) has insisted there is no evidence of widespread abuse of the system - but admits it doesn't know how many are going to foreign nationals.
"We are continually looking at ways we can tighten up the process further, and as a result of this investigation the department will urgently carry out more work to include EHIC applications," says Burt.
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