Now in a new malicious and factually dubious piece of divisive scapegoating we have David Cameron and Health Secretary Jeremy 'cockney rhyming slang' Hunt accusing foreign nationals of stealing our NHS. They have a catchy phrase for it too - 'health tourism'.
However, the scaremongering immediately ran into trouble when Cameron and Hunt couldn't agree on a figure with Cameron suggesting there was between £10m and £20m that the NHS should be recouping, while Hunt suggested the NHS was losing £200m. In April a Conservative MP found through Freedom of Information requests that the figure might be £40m.
Even though Conservative Party ministers and MPs can't agree on a figure - possibly because the data isn't fully available - they have problematised foreign nationals using the NHS. And this scaremongering has worked: at a recent Benefit Justice meeting I spoke at, a contributor from the floor - after rightly bemoaning NHS cuts - went on to blame the cost an open door policy through which anyone in the world can use the NHS ... apparently.
But since we have three estimates of the gross costs of foreign nationals to the NHS, let's try to get a net figure by looking at the savings to the NHS by foreign nationals, and by British nationals using foreign health services.
Foreign nationals saving the NHS
Firstly, the NHS makes a huge saving by importing foreign nationals to run the NHS. The cost of training a doctor is estimated by the BMA to be a minimum of £269,527, up to £564,112 for consultants - the cost of which is shared between trainees and the state. According to a 2008 study by the OECD (cited in WHO research), the UK had the highest share of foreign trained doctors in Europe - with 37.5%. The same research states that the UK had 243,770 doctors in 2008, so 91,414 were foreign trained.
If the UK had borne the full cost of training those doctors that would have been £24.6 billion - and that is using the lowest end of foundation training cited by the BMA (£269,527). Given we import far more doctors than we export - and that we import more doctors than any other European country - then it's safe to say the UK is saving several billion pounds.
And that's without calculating similar costs for nurses, midwives, etc. According to research by the National Nursing Research Unit, before 2005 10,000-16,000 nurses were emigrating to the UK each year, but following the changes in 2005 the numbers decreased to 2,000-2,500 foreign nurses arriving in the UK each year*.
This is without costing in the UK lives that would be lost were these foreign nationals not there to staff our NHS. How do you think your hospital would cope with losing over one-third of its doctors? The financial, social and human cost to the UK would be immense.
The cost of UK citizens on other health services?
According to parliamentary research, in 2007/08 the average value of NHS services for retired households was £5,200 (compared with £2,800 for non-retired). Now given there are about 220,000 pensioner households living abroad that's just over £1 billion. Even if just 1% of that cost was not recouped from the UK by foreign healthcare systems, that would be over £10 million. If 5% went unrecouped that would be £51 million.
Of course these figures should be treated with a health warning: firstly, they assume health costs have stayed the same as five years ago; secondly, there are no reliable consolidated estimates for what foreign health systems fail to reclaim; and thirdly the figures exclude non-pensioner households living abroad.
Despite whipped up fears by the Conservatives, UKIP and their daily print editions the Mail, Sun and Express, the figures for 'health tourism' cited by the government (which range from £10 to £200m) are relatively trivial in government spending terms.
In 2012, NHS spending was £104 billion. So even at the highest end of the government's dubious estimates, health tourism accounts for just 0.19% of total NHS expenditure.
That gross figure does not take account of the savings made by the NHS by importing already trained medical staff or for UK nationals who receive unrecouped treatment abroad.
* 2002 research by the Royal College of Nursing found in just one London NHS trust nurses and midwives from the following 68 countries: Algeria, Angola, Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Benin (Dahomey), Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, China, Congo, Denmark, Dominica, Finland, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guyana(British Guyana), Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Ivory Coast, Jamaica & Cayman Islands, Japan, Kenya, Korea (South), Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius & Reunion, Mauritania, Moldavia, Nepal, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Spain (inc Canary Islands), Sri Lanka, St Lucia, St Vincent (Grenadines), Swaziland, Sweden, Tanzania, Trinidad & Tobago, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States of America, West Indies, Zambia, Zimbabwe