Loophole that lets you beat hospital operation queues
But amazingly, only 14 people from Northern Ireland have ever done it
Long-suffering NHS patients on Northern Ireland's growing waiting lists could skip the queue if only they were aware of an EU directive that permits treatment in another state, it has been claimed.
Only 14 people from Northern Ireland have taken advantage of a little-known EU cross-border health directive that came into existence in October 2013.
But with almost 400,000 people across Northern Ireland waiting for a specialist appointment or medical treatment, and no Health Minister at Stormont, that figure could now rise.
The directive allows many patients to access medical procedures and treatment for conditions such as hip and knee replacements - where patients can be on the waiting list for more than a year. Some patients here have been waiting 18 months for treatment for back surgery - which again can be treated abroad.
It applies to either private or state-run hospitals in other European countries - not just the Irish Republic.
Under the rules, an eligible patient covers the cost of the operation up-front - but crucially, they can claim the money back within a month.
To do so, they need prior approval of their consultant or their GP in some circumstances. Only seven people have been refused.
Surprisingly, very few GPs in Northern Ireland appear to be aware that the directive exists. Among them was Dr Anne McCloskey, who works in a busy practice in the Shantallow area of Derry.
She said: "I knew nothing about this directive and I imagine I am not alone in that, given the fact that so few people have managed to get treated using it.
"I am a firm supporter of the NHS and believe that treatment should be free for all at the point of delivery - but I would do everything I could to help my patients get off long waiting lists.
"Every day I talk to patients who previously would have been a priority for treatment, like the woman who is in constant pain waiting on a hip replacement who has a Down's syndrome son to care for. This is very interesting and I cannot understand why GPs were not made more aware of it."
One medical professional in Co Donegal only recently became aware of it - but has since sent 20 of his patients to the North West Independent Clinic in Ballykelly. Dr Gerald Roarty operates a dental practice in Ballybofey.
He said: "I have had patients who were waiting for two and three years for oral surgery who are now being seen within a week through this directive.
"The South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen is well able to cope with the numbers of patients in Donegal who are on waiting lists but few doctors are aware that this EU cross-border directive exists."
Dr Tom Black, chairman of the NI General Practitioners Committee, was aware of the directive, but added: "I don't think it has been promoted properly and it is down to the patient to raise it as an option.
"Ideally, it would be preferable to see the NHS funded properly so that there would be no patients on a waiting list - but you could hardly blame people for looking elsewhere for treatment and using this directive as an option."
Stormont health committee chairwoman Maeve McLaughlin raised questions over why so few people were aware of the option.
"This is an example of a directive we could utilise to reduce the long lists of people waiting for hospital treatments," the Foyle MLA said.
"We already have examples of cross-border healthcare in children's heart care and radiotherapy so this just makes sense. The big question that must be asked, though, is why this is not marketed more and why is it not being utilised more - those are the questions I will raise at the earliest opportunity."
A spokeswoman for the Health and Social Care Board confirmed patients could be treated for their condition outside Northern Ireland and then be reimbursed.
She said: "The EU directive on cross-border healthcare route is used when an individual seeks access to treatment in another European Economic Area country or Switzerland in either the state or private sectors.
"Unlike other options, this arises where the board considers treatment is available locally or within the rest of the UK but a patient has nonetheless opted to seek treatment elsewhere."
She said that for patients with approval, the HSCB reimburses EU citizens resident in Northern Ireland.
"It can take up to 20 working days for a fully completed application to be processed and a decision to be made. If approved, the reimbursement can take up to 30 working days to be processed."