Free treatment abroad has low take-up
Just 1,303 people from Ireland have availed of the EU cross-border scheme which allows for free medical treatment abroad.
This is despite more than 630,000 people being on some form of waiting list, including high numbers needing surgery or a specialist appointment.
The scheme enables treatment in another EU jurisdiction, including Northern Ireland. The patient pays the cost of treatment upfront and is later reimbursed by the HSE, although travel is not covered, which probably explains the low take-up.
Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune, who obtained the figures, said "for many, many people it means they could have the treatment in Belfast and the HSE will pay for it, but not the cost of travel.
"The total number of people waiting on the in-patient and day-case waiting list as published by the NTPF on December 30, 2016, was 81,015."
She said the HSE had spent more than €2.2m in 2016 on patients who had opted to have their procedures in another EU country.
"That's an average payment of over €6,700 per in-patient treatment and €585 on average for each outpatient treatment."
Ms Clune pointed out that under the Cross Border Healthcare Directive, any public patient with a referral letter from their GP or consultant may obtain treatment in another member state and claim reimbursement.
The cross-border scheme, however, is not limited to patients on waiting lists and covers most areas of healthcare, including acute hospital procedures, dental care, speech and language therapy, as well as physiotherapy, disability and mental health services.
The HSE said reimbursement to patients would be at the cost of the treatment abroad or the cost of the treatment in Ireland, whichever was the lesser.
A consultation fee would be reimbursed at a maximum of €130. For other costs, the HSE uses Hospital In-Patient Enquiry costings for the purposes of reimbursement.
It gave the example of a woman from Ireland who went to France to have a hip replacement. The cost in Ireland is €10,000, with a €75 per night hospital charge.
If the cost in France is €11,000 and she was in hospital for five nights then the reimbursement rate would be €10,000, less €375, which is €9,625.