NHS patients offered chance to visit France for treatment
NHS patients will be able to travel to France for routine treatment under plans criticised as a "gimmick" by opponents.
Managers have signed contracts for patients in parts of Kent to be treated at two hospitals in Calais and Le Touquet, possibly by the end of April.
The NHS will foot the cost of treatment for procedures including orthopaedics, ear nose and throat and cataract surgery - but patients will have to pay for their own travel costs.
Providers will give 24-hour access by phone to a member of the hospital surgical team for 14 days as part of the procurement plan.
And follow-up appointments will be either by telephone or video technology such as Skype, or patients will travel back to France to see their consultant.
But union officials said it was "an admission of failure" by the NHS, and they scoffed at claims that the scheme was to broaden healthcare choice for patients.
The plans were revealed by the NHS South Kent Coast Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which controls £253 million and covers Dover, Deal and the Shepway district.
Hazel Carpenter, of the NHS South Kent Coast CCG, said: "Our patient representatives have been to France, as well as CCG GP representatives and tested the practicalities, ensuring that the scheme is viable.
"Feedback has been very positive, and the French providers have listened, improving signage, for example. And the hospitals have already ensured that staff have excellent English language skills."
Simon Bolton, of Unison, said the scheme was a "gimmick" to cover up NHS failings. He said: "It's an admission of failure and instead of trying to own up and deal with it, they've come up with this.
"I dare say if you go to France you will get decent treatment but if you need a hip operation, for example, how are you going to travel 22 miles? Who's going to visit you?
"Having failed to commission and plan care in Kent properly, they are now saying, 'Well you can go to France'. It's a gimmick and it's to cover their own backs."
NHS officials said patients cannot be forced to travel to France for their treatment, insisting that the option was an "additional choice of healthcare".
They have denied it was happening because local NHS hospitals were struggling to cope with the numbers of patients they were being asked to treat.
And officials sought to ease any concerns about patient confidentiality, saying the standards for managing and storing patient records will be same as for UK hospitals.
Under EU rules on procurement law, healthcare providers from other EU countries are entitled to apply to be accredited.
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "It is astonishing that the authorities are delivering this news without any sign of embarrassment.
"Whatever the problems facing the local hospitals, outsourcing our healthcare needs across the Channel cannot be a serious or a sustainable solution.
"Given the sheer amount of taxpayers' money that successive governments have thrown at the NHS, it is time we started living up to the 'envy of the world' title."