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Over 600 patients who have had surgery in other European countries have now successfully reclaimed their medical costs from the NHS under a new law introduced a year ago.

The EU Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare, introduced on 25 October 2013, gives UK patients the right to receive treatment anywhere in Europe. Effectively it means that patients waiting for treatment can choose to have an operation at a private hospital in Europe and reclaim the cost, provided the treatment is medically necessary and would cost no more than it would in an NHS hospital.

According to figures revealed by the Department of Work and Pensions under a freedom of information request, 855 patients in England have submitted claims so far under the EU Directive. Of these, 621 have been successful and between them they have reclaimed a total of £833,491 in total – an average of £1,342 per claim.

The DWP figures, revealed at the request of Operations Abroad Worldwide, the UK’s leading provider of treatment overseas, show that France, Germany and Poland were the most popular countries for operations.

The lowest cost for a hip replacement was £4153.35 which was carried out in the Czech Republic, and the lowest cost for a knee replacement was £2756.16 which was in France. However the DWP warns that the costs may reflect the requirements of individual patients and therefore not necessarily a standard price.

Ruth Taylor of Operations Abroad Worldwide said the EU Directive gave patients greater choice and could also help the NHS achieve savings: “The EU Directive makes treatment in Europe a more attractive option,” she says. “For those who are on NHS waiting lists and considering private treatment, having their operation in Europe means they benefit from prompt treatment and will be able to claim back their medical costs, although they will have to cover their own travel expenses.

“While refunds are limited to the cost of an NHS operation, medical costs in Europe can be up to 80% lower so it is possible for patients to receive treatment in a top-class private hospital for much less than it would cost the NHS. Therefore patients may also benefit from better quality care with more intensive rehabilitation and little or no risk of infection. Meanwhile the NHS benefits from cost savings and reduced waiting lists.”

To illustrate the difference in prices, a hip replacement which would cost the NHS £5,943 or £12,500 at a private hospital in the UK, would cost £3,970 at SurGal Clinic, one of the leading private hospitals in the Czech Republic.

One patient who chose to have an operation overseas after reading about the EU Directive is Lesley Catlin of London. She had a knee replacement at SurGal Clinic and has applied to the NHS for a refund. Lesley had been in pain for over a year when she was put on the NHS waiting list for a knee replacement and during that time had had physiotherapy and a arthroscopy procedure but to no avail.

She said: “Although I had been told that there were ‘no waiting lists’, I had had to wait for almost a year to see a consultant. I was in constant pain and unsure about how much longer I would have to wait. I had also been warned about the risk of infection and I was concerned about standards at the hospital I would have gone to.

“I saw an article in WeightWatchers magazine about operations abroad and the EU Directive and decided that this would be the best option. In the UK I would have been in hospital for four days, but at SurGal Clinic I was in for nine days and had twice-daily physiotherapy sessions after the operation, initially in the hospital and then in the hotel right up to the day of departure.”

About the EU Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare

  • Patients must be resident in the UK and entitled to NHS services. The treatment must take place in a country within the European Economic Area.
  • Refunds are only available for treatment that is medically necessary and would have been made available to you under the NHS.
  • Generally, patients have to pay the costs upfront and claim reimbursement when they return.
  • The amount reimbursed is limited to the cost of the treatment, or the amount it would have cost the NHS, whichever is the lower. Travel and accommodation costs are not covered.
  • Prior authorisation may be required in some cases – generally where there are ongoing or complex conditions. See a full list of such conditions from NHS England.
  • Patients who are unsure about their costs would be repaid should contact the NHS first.