Tens of thousands of retired British expats could be forced to return home to use the NHS, if the Brexit deal doesn't ensure they continue receiving treatment overseas. The move would cost the NHS £500 million a year, and put services under unbearable pressure.
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The figures were revealed in a report by Nuffield Health, which outlined the fact that the UK currently gives about £500 million to EU healthcare systems, as part of a system that ensures that expats can go to any EU member state and receive the same healthcare rights as the local population.
Once this system comes to an end, it could force expats to come back to the UK for this treatment. The report found that this would cost the NHS a total of £1 billion a year - double the cost of treating them overseas.
The figure comes from the fact that about 190,000 British pensioners live overseas. If every pensioner came home for treatment instead of paying for their care overseas, and they suffer an average level of ill-health, it calculates that they will fill another 900 NHS hospital beds a year, and require around 1,600 more NHS employees.
It adds that if EU migration is reduced, then the bill will be even higher, because staff will have to be recruited from a far smaller pool of talent in the UK. At the same time, if the pound continues to fall, they will also be faced with the higher cost of medicine.
Mark Dayan, Policy and Public Affairs Analyst, Nuffield Trust says that technically some of these extra costs could be paid out of the money saved from the cancellation of Britain's EU membership fees, however: "Whether or not these benefits will outweigh the significant staffing and financial costs Brexit may impose on already stretched services remains to be seen."
Perhaps even more worryingly, the report highlighted that creating 900 hospital beds is the equivalent of building and staffing three large London hospitals. Not only is this enormously expensive, it's also something that cannot be put in place overnight. In the interim, this could mean longer waiting lists, earlier discharges, and more pressure on hospitals to get patients up and out at the earliest possible opportunity.
Dayan says: "The NHS and social care were already under pressure from tight funding settlements and growing staffing problems well before the EU referendum last year. But if we handle it badly, leaving the EU could make these problems even worse, given the potential impact on both the strength of the UK economy and the supply of overseas staff to both health and social care services."