Foreigners are to be offered free treatment for HIV on the NHS for the first time under controversial plans backed by ministers.
Those from abroad, including failed asylum seekers (Who travel through [u]safe[/u] countries to get here!), students and tourists are currently barred from receiving free HIV treatment – unlike other infectious diseases.
However, the Government is to support proposals recommended by peers which will end the “anomaly” and allow free treatment even for those not legally settle in Britain.
Campaigners argue that the free treatment (Free when the taxpayers fund it!) is essential as it reduces the risk of Britons being infected (treatment doesn’t stop them infecting others)– and can help people to be treated for HIV before their condition becomes serious and life-threatening.
However, ministers are braced for criticism that the decision may prompt so-called “health tourism” and put the NHS under financial pressure at a time when hospitals are being forced to find cuts. It typically costs up to £7,000 a year to treat someone diagnosed with HIV and an average of £300,000 per patient over their lifetime with the disease.
Last night, Anne Milton, the public health minister, said: “This measure will protect the public and brings HIV treatment in to line with all other infectious diseases. Treating people with HIV means they are very unlikely to pass the infection on to others.”
However she added: “Tough guidance will ensure this measure is not abused.”
The Government is understood to have decided to introduce free treatment amid fears that the potential costs of being diagnosed were dissuading foreigners from seeking help. There are estimated to be 25,000 people, many of whom are foreign-born, undiagnosed HIV sufferers in Britain.
The Health Protection Agency recently calculated that it costs more than £300,000 to treat every person who contracts the disease including those who go on to develop AIDS. The cost of treating sufferers in the last stages of their lives is particularly high.
The government belives that early diagnosis of sufferers could ultimately help cut costs before the virus is passed on to other people.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, said: “Effective treatment of HIV reduces its spread by up to 96 per cent. This change is in line with the UK Chief Medical Officers’ Expert Advisory Group’s advice, and offering NHS treatment will encourage testing, resulting in fewer undiagnosed HIV infections and therefore ensuring that there is less chance of passing on infection to the wider population.”
The change in the rules has been proposed by Lord Fowler, the former Cabinet minister, who ran the 1980s Aids awareness campaign. The peer, who chaired a Parliamentary committee studying the disease, has proposed amending the NHS bill to allow free treatment. His proposal would only allow people who have been in the country for six months to be treated.
Lord Fowler said: “It’s a rather curious anomaly because for all other infectious conditions, treatment is free. The case for change is overwhelming in human terms. The proposal almost speaks for itself and every group is in favour of this change”.
Although the Government will reject Lord Fowler’s amendment it has pledged to amend NHS guidelines to allow free treatment.
A Department of Health source said: “This is about protecting this nation’s health. By offering treatment it will encourage people to come forward for testing – reducing late diagnosis and infection of others. The public health argument is compelling.”
The number of people being treated for HIV in this country has trebled over the past decade and almost 100,000 people are thought to now suffer from the disease. Only one in three people with HIV was born in the UK.
However, the infection rate in this country has doubled in the past decade – and the number of infections acquired within the UK exceeded those abroad in 2010 for the first time.
If diagnosed early, HIV, although incurable, is now treatable for many people.
According to the National Aids Trust, many people taking anti-HIV drugs become non-infectious.
Yusef Azad, the director of policy at the trust, said: “If someone is tested and treated early it is much cheaper than them presenting themselves in hospital with a much more serious, complex condition that can cost tens of thousands of pounds to treat.”
However, the decision is expected to spark renewed concerns over so-called health tourism, which the NHS has recently taken steps to address.
Entitlement to free NHS hospital treatment is based on a patient being “ordinarily resident” in the UK.
Anyone else is supposed to be charged for the full cost of any treatment they receive unless an exemption applies to the particular therapy.
Hospitals must take reasonable measures to recover any debt and most have overseas visitors’ managers to do this. However, last year it emerged that so-called “health tourists” have taken at least £35 million of free treatment over the past eight years.
The costs fall disproportionately on certain hospitals, particularly those close to Heathrow and other airports.
Although the NHS budget is due to rise in real terms over the next few years, the rising cost of treatment and the ageing British population means that most hospitals are having to make significant cutbacks.
The Government is not thought to have yet conducted a cost-benefit analysis studying the impact of the decision to allow free HIV treatment to foreigners. However, the Scottish and Welsh governments effectively already offer the free treatment and have not reported a major upsurge in patients (Mind you the English subsidise that too).