Millions who have lost their NHS dentist could insist on going abroad for free treatment under radical plans to allow ‘health tourism’.
Ministers were taken aback by the scale of EU proposals for new rights to shop around Europe for the best and fastest medical treatment – and send the bill to the NHS.
Experts believe that with almost a million fewer patients being treated since Labour’s last disastrous shake-up of NHS dental care in 2006, it will become one of the most popular types of treatment sought abroad.
A poll showed that more than half of NHS patients – 53% – are prepared to travel overseas under the proposals to allow ‘cross-border healthcare’.
Experts said they would effectively transform the National Health Service into a ‘European Health Service’.
Patients would not have to show they have suffered any undue delay for treatment in the UK before demanding to be treated abroad.
They could claim up to the amount their treatment would have cost in their home country.
But they could also top up the cost of care abroad, meaning they can use NHS funds to pay part of the bill for treatment at the most exclusive private clinics in any of the EU’s 27 member states.
This could include expensive procedures such as bridges and crowns.
European Commission healthcare spokesman Nicholas Fahy said the Government would have to justify requiring permission for major surgery in each individual case and it would be open to challenge in EU courts.
He said the EU wanted the new plans for ‘cross-border healthcare’ enshrined in law within two-and-a-half to three years.
But he said that following a series of court rulings, patients who wanted to escape dirty British hospitals or waiting lists could insist on being treated abroad now and take legal action to reclaim the costs from the NHS.
The Government said it would fight to water down the proposals.
Ministers are understood to be deeply concerned that the move will mean the well educated and the well-off, who are able to pay for travel costs and topup fees, gaining access to better healthcare using NHS funds.
Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said: ‘This is a draft directive. It’s far from clear that this will be the final version. We must do what we can to protect the finances of the NHS and ensure that everyone has fair access to treatment.’
However, the plan will become law across the EU if a majority of countries agree, since Britain does not have a veto.
Mr Fahy said it enjoyed ‘almost universal support’ elsewhere in Europe.