Leader: Stop NHS subsidising private health fees

The conspiracy theorists among us might be right on one score after all. Those who warn of a secret plan to privatise the NHS are beginning to collect at least some credible evidence.

First, there were the private treatment centres given contracts that paid them regardless of whether or not they actually carried out procedures.

And of course, there was the news that private providers had negotiated higher tariffs than those applicable to NHS hospitals.

But a statement from BUPA on its annual performance brings the real effects of private providers' relationship with the NHS into harsh daylight: 14 per cent of BUPA Hospitals' business is treating NHS patients. This, the company says, 'means healthcare can be made more affordable to (our) private patients'.

Private healthcare in the UK is a luxury item, available in the main to higher earners who can afford the premiums or hospital fees and those who receive it as an employment benefit.

But this comment from BUPA reveals an interesting trend.

If increased levels of NHS work pushes the cost of private health care down, then a greater proportion of the population is likely to sign up for it. This could further reduce waiting lists, but the main benefit will be to the bank balances and shareholders of the various private providers.

It is important that waiting lists are reduced and that the NHS can commission sufficient capacity to treat all that require care in a reasonable time period. However, if private providers are able to negotiate higher tariffs and better payment regimes than NHS hospitals, UK taxpayers are in effect subsidising the expansion of private healthcare rather than investment in NHS services. At a time when PCTs and hospital trusts are facing financial problems, and hospitals are laying off staff, the NHS's relationship with the private sector requires a review to ensure the public sector does not lose out to the private.

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