Patients will find it easier to escape NHS queues and head across the Channel for treatment under an EU blueprint for European health tourism to be published tomorrow.
It will guarantee that, in most cases, treatment within the European Union will be funded by the taxpayer. The move will open up competiton between the NHS and European health services and is being hailed as a big step towards an open market for public healthcare.
Until now, patients who have paid for more efficient treatment in France or Germany without securing prior funding approval have faced court battles to get the NHS to reimburse them. A draft of the EU directive on cross-border healthcare, seen by The Times, obliges the NHS to fund outpatient treatments in Europe, such as scans and minor operations, provided that the patient has been referred by a medical professional and is suffering delays.
The EU wants the same system for major hospital procedures such as joint replacements and serious dental work. But Brussels will allow countries to refuse to fund such operations abroad if they can argue that domestic services will suffer as a result. Such opt-outs would be negotiated procedure by procedure.