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Health Tourists Put Spanish Service Under Strain

Waves of tourists have been coming to Spain's sun-kissed eastern and southern coastline for decades and convalescents among them are connoisseurs of the climate's restorative properties.

But as European integration progresses, more and more health "tourists" and foreign residents buying into the idea of retirement by the sea have been making increasing use of Spain's health facilities -- to the extent that they are now causing a headache for service providers.

EU tourists here, comprising in their majority Britons, Germans and Belgians, are entitled to free healthcare in Spain, with the local authorities picking up the bill.

Popular procedures include hip replacements and coronary bypasses, according to the Confederation of Medical Unions (CESM) in the eastern coastal region of Valencia.

"Everything is easier here, healthcare is universal and free for all," says Manuel Cervera, deputy head of healthcare in the Valencian regional government.

"In some northern European countries patients sometimes have to wait for months on waiting lists for treatment. Here, the average wait is 45 days for a routine operation," Cervera told AFP.

Obtaining a prosthesis "sometimes costs money in other countries, whereas here they are free," he adds.

Under current EU legislation such treatment or surgery for a previously diagnosed ailment requires authorisation from health authorities in the patient's homeland.

To circumvent that rule patients will "often take advantage of a serious instance of a longstanding ailment in order to go to emergency services where they get seen and operated on if necessary," says doctor and CESM spokesman Ricardo Llevata.

"Health tourism is camouflaged behind normal tourism," Llevata charges.

"Many people say they are on holiday whereas in fact they are getting treatment."

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