Saturday, September 6, 2008

EU aims to become a bastion of equality

Patients could travel abroad for treatment

Brussels, July 7 - Patients will be able to seek healthcare abroad and get reimbursed up to the level their governments normally would have paid in their own country, the European Commission announced. As part of the overall Renewed Social Agenda for the benefit of EU citizens, the Commission reiterated what the European Court of Justice in its several rulings over a period of time has confirmed - that the EU Treaty gives individual patients the right to seek healthcare in other Member States and be reimbursed at home. Announcing the proposals, Androulla Vassiliou, European Health Commissioner told journalists: “Patients will be able to receive treatment in any member state, which will be reimbursed at home up to the level of the same or similar treatment in their health system,” adding, “There will be a fair and quick reimbursement.”

Saying, “They will not need prior authorisation,” the Commissioner added, “Patients from any country will enjoy equal treatment with the nationals of the country in which they are being treated and cannot be discriminated against.” The Commissioner stressed that the directive was aimed at the patients in small cities or towns on border areas and also in specified specialised cases. To calm the doubts raised by the Member States, the Commissioner said, “However, if unpredictable cross-border healthcare becomes a problem, the system could put into place a system of prior authorisation to safeguard the system.” She added: “It will allow excessive demand from one country to be met by excessive capacity in another country.

This is the essence of the co-operation,” but it was also clarified that in countries with long waiting lists, patients from abroad will have to join the queue. Moreover, the new measures will allow the Member States to require that the citizens get prior authorisation for hospital treatment abroad and the Member States will have to deal with them on a case by case basis with provisions for “right to review” and explanations to justify any denial of such requests. On the part of the host Member State, the quality and safety standards of the treatment will be their responsibility while the new directive is set to facilitate European cooperation on healthcare.

The Commissioner said, “All Member States should define standards and those should be made public and ensured that they are effectively implemented.” Around one percent of treatment is currently provided abroad in Europe and the number is very low, the Commission said. Today, the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) provides only emergency care across the European Union in case a traveling EU citizen falls ill while abroad but has health insurance in the home country. “This is about patient’s rights. Patients should be entitled to treatment in another EU member state if necessary, with no worry about costs, safety and quality.

Whereas today complex rules and legal uncertainty can be a barrier for people without many resources, this directive will ensure equal access for all patients to cross border health services,” said Jules Maaten, a Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands. Covering other broad range of subjects like old age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and disability the overall legal proposals promised all equal treatment. Launching the Renewed Social Agenda, Vladimir Spidla, European Commissioner for Equal Opportunities told journalists, “There is an inequality in (EU) legislation because people are protected from discrimination outside the workplace only on grounds of gender and race or ethnic origin.

We must ensure equal treatment for all grounds.” Aiming to ensure equality in all fields and sectors, the Commission said in a statement that the proposal should “ensure equal treatment in the areas of social protection, including social security and health care; education; and access to and supply of goods and services which are commercially available to the public, including housing.” Clarifying doubts raised by journalists, the Commission officials said under the new rules, for example, a hotel will not be able to refuse a room to a gay couple because of their sexuality or other facilities like restaurants which refused to provide adequate access for wheelchair-bound customers will have to do so under the new legislation.

There will, however be no imposition in cases of sensitive subjects like teaching about homosexuality in the school curricula or the ban on religious symbols. As a result, the intolerant behaviour of countries like France, which since 2004 banned the open showing of religious symbols such as Christian crosses, Muslim headscarves or Sikh turbans in state schools on the grounds of state secularism, could not be forced to change their laws. The proposals under this new directive must now be examined by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers before becoming EU law.

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