The UK is paying £700m a year more for the medical costs of EU citizens than it recoups from other member statesfor the treatment of British people abroad, Brexit campaigners have said.
Vote Leave, one of the leading groups campaigning to exit the EU, said its new data showed the UK was “getting a bad deal” from the rest of Europe when it came to the reimbursement of medical costs.
Gisela Stuart, the chair of Vote Leave and a Labour MP, said it showed “health tourism from the EU has cost us billions”.
“This money could have been much better spent,” she said. “It could have been invested to improve care for NHS patients.
“If we vote [to] leave, we will be able to stop handing over so much money to the EU and we would be able to spend our money on priorities here in the UK, like abolishing prescription charges and investing in the NHS.”
The claims sparked an immediate counterattack from Britain Stronger in Europe, the leading remain campaign.
The remain camp said it was proof that Brexit campaigners would expect British holidaymakers in Europe to pay for their own medical care.
James McGrory, the chief campaign spokesman of Britain Stronger in Europe, said: “I congratulate Vote Leave for their honesty in admitting that they would leave British holidaymakers out of pocket by forcing them to cover the cost of treatment in EU countries.
“Falling ill away from home is worrying enough, and the European health insurance card allows British families to access the best available care without having to worry about the costs.”
Vote Leave dismissed the claims, saying the UK would be able to renegotiate the European health insurance scheme “to get a better deal for the British taxpayer if we vote [to] leave”.
Other campaigners for Britain to stay in the EU accused the Brexit camp of “desperate scaremongering”.
Alan Johnson, the chair of Labour’s In for Britain campaign, said the figures were “hugely misleading and ignore the fact there are far more British pensioners choosing to retire in European countries than EU citizens retiring here”.
It is the latest row over the NHS in the EU referendum debate, as health becomes a key battleground in the campaign.
Four former health secretaries said on Sunday that those claiming Brexit could save the NHS were guilty of spreading a “dangerous lie” when it would in fact starve the health service of cash and staff.
In a letter to the Guardian this week, Alan Milburn, Patricia Hewitt, Andy Burnham and Alan Johnson argued that leaving the EU would risk “frightening consequences for staffing, waiting times and levels of service care”.
Their statement backed the stance of Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, who says that leaving the EU would put NHS funding at risk.
On the other side, Michael Howard, the former Conservative leader, told the
Sunday Telegraph this was a myth, while Priti Patel, the employment minister, said the health service was “under threat” because of the UK’s membership.
“We will be talking a lot about the NHS in this campaign because we believe that a leave vote is vital if we are to protect the NHS for future generations,” Patel said.
“Current levels of migration are causing unsustainable pressures on our public services and we can see that the NHS is creaking under the strain.”
Responding to Vote Leave’s figures, a Department of Health spokesman said:“This government is determined to make sure our NHS isn’t abused – our tough new measures to clamp down on migrants accessing the NHS are expected to recover more than £500m a year by 2018 and we’re extending charges further to other parts of the NHS including A&E.
“We pay more out than we receive partly because a far greater number of British pensioners live in other EEA [European Economic Area]countries.”
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