EU Health Regulations – improving patients’ rights or more NHS privatisation in disguise?

It is appalling that the recent NHS privatisation regulations have now been passed, despite a broad-based and vigorous campaign against them.

The Regulations, made under Section 75 of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, essentially require all NHS services to be put out to competition unless there is only one provider capable of delivering them.

As Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, has pointed out, with these changes the legal framework for a publicly provided, publicly managed, publicly planned and democratically accountable health service has been removed.

At a UK level, the only solution to this situation now is for an incoming Labour Government to reverse comprehensively the 2012 Health and Social Care Act and associated secondary legislation. But we must also go further and seek to re-examine and eliminate the purchaser / provider split wherever we can and in whatever timescale is feasible.

Against this background it remains important in the meantime that we are vigilant about European Union legislation that can impact negatively on our public services, health included.

To give one current example, the Department of Health is currently consulting until 24 May on the draft NHS (Cross-Border Health Care) Regulations 2013.

Although health services are largely excluded from EU competence, there have been moves for many years to try and open up the single market approach to healthcare provision, and to let in more competition by private providers based in other member states.

EU citizens already can obtain European Health Insurance Cards to ensure they can get urgent medical treatment when in another member state. So far, so good.

And the new draft Cross-Border Health Care Regulations are aiming to bring into force a 2011 EU Directive that gives patients ostensibly reasonable sounding rights to access planned healthcare treatment in other European countries.

But in reality, the Regulations do little more for patients than clarify rights in existing EU legislation and case law. They certainly do not address the problems of widening health inequalities within the EU, and the fact that those from poorer countries will still not be enabled to access much needed specialist treatment elsewhere.

And buried in the impact assessment accompanying these official regulations (at p.23), there is a section explaining the real drivers. This section emphasises the potential for increasing competition amongst UK and EU healthcare providers and diversifying income streams for domestic private providers.

It is vital that Labour and other concerned campaigners lobby to get the regulations changed so that the Directive is brought into effect in the least damaging way possible. One option would be to argue that prior authorisation procedures should have the highest possible safeguards against funding private treatment overseas and it should not be authorised unless the NHS is incapable of providing the required treatment.

In the longer term, these regulations illustrate yet again that Labour and Socialist MEPs must work together to change the basis of the EU attitude on public services to one of solidarity and fair access for citizens and not as a market for companies to make profits.

• Lucy Anderson is a Labour MEP candidate for London and a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum Health and Care Commission