Proposals to allow patients to travel abroad within the European Union for hospital treatment were yesterday greeted by the SDLP as a "welcome principle" - but only if they do not breach the foundations of the NHS.
The party's health spokeswoman Carmel Hanna said it was right that any EU citizen should be able to obtain healthcare in another EU state if it is not available to them in their own country, at their own country's cost.
The MLA warned, however, that the proposals need to be carefully implemented and must not be allowed to dilute the core NHS principle of being 'free at the point of need'.
The controversial European Commission report was due to be published this week but has now been put off until the New Year.
It was due to announce that anyone who could not have "appropriate care" for their condition in their own country "without undue delay, will be authorised to go abroad, and any additional costs of treatment will be covered by public funds".
If approved by EU ministers, the proposals would oblige national health systems in the 27 EU countries to provide equivalent hospital facilities to those patients would be offered in their own countries.
Some Labour MPs claim so-called EU "health tourism" could undermine the NHS, but Tories welcomed the move as freedom for NHS patients to express their views about the service.
The catalyst for the proposals was a ruling last year in the case of a 75-year-old British woman who paid £3,900 for a hip replacement in France because she was not prepared to wait a year for the operation at home.
The European Court of Justice decided that patients who were facing undue delay, in the view of clinicians, should be allowed to seek treatment in other EU states at their own country's cost.
Ms Hanna, a member of the Stormont Health Committee, said: "I welcome the principle that any EU citizen can obtain health care in another EU state if he or she cannot obtain appropriate care in their own country.
"However, the core principle of the NHS must not be breached, that it is funded by all of us, available to each of us, equally, free at the point of treatment, with care based on need, and not on ability to pay."
Ms Hanna said she did fear the emergence of a "multi-layered system at enormous cost".
"It is crucial to ensure that a uniformly high standard of health care be guaranteed throughout the EU. That means the NHS must become more efficient and cost-effective," she said.
"For example, health care in France or Germany would be seen as better than in some of the former Soviet bloc countries now in the EU."
The SDLP woman also highlighted moral and ethical questions that could arise from the new proposals.
"NHS clinicians should have the right to determine what is appropriate and ethical treatment. It would be wrong for taxpayers' money to be spent on non-essential cosmetic surgery, or to travel elsewhere for euthanasia, which is banned in the UK," she added.
Because of the controversial nature of the plans, the Commission has spent months drafting and re-drafting them, but will still face opposition from a number of countries.
The Department of Health in London made it clear that the Commission's draft directive will be subject to change during negotiations.
Dr Brian Dunn, chair of the BMA's GPs committee in Northern Ireland, said he did not believe the proposals would come to fruition in the UK.
"We once had the highest waiting lists in Europe here in Northern Ireland but thankfully those days are gone."