According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, private firms are treating almost one in five NHS patients with certain conditions. As a result of Labour’s promotion of patient choice private operators are now becoming a significant provider of care.
The Labour government said using independent centres had been essential in clearing a backlog of patients waiting for treatment. According to shadow health minister Jamie Reed, “under Labour these agreements supplemented the mainstream NHS – giving it the extra capacity it needed to deliver the lowest ever waiting lists. This is very different to the current government’s privatisation of the core of the NHS. Any qualified provider’ puts the private sector on the same footing as the NHS when competing for contracts. If the NHS loses out then its capacity to provide that service will shrink. The NHS must always be given the first opportunity to provide its own services.”
The NHS Partners Network, a group of private providers of NHS care, said the findings showed GPs have been directing patients to non-NHS treatment services because they are better. Director David Worskett said, “this is further evidence that patients do indeed want to have choice and will take advantage of it where it is in their interests to do so. It is also significant that the exercise of choice is now increasingly being supported by GPs where they consider it to be right for their patients. That means most GPs are, as one would expect, putting patients before politics.” 195 independent hospitals and treatment centres in England now offer a ‘choose and book’ system where patients can be treated at NHS prices.
Recent data from the NHS’s Health and Social Care Information Centre shows that the trend of growing numbers of NHS-funded procedures being carried out by private firms has continued under the coalition government. The British Medical Association said promoting competition between different providers could cause destabilisation of patient services.
The health minister Lord Howe, said the quality of patient care was what mattered most, not who provided it. He said “the crucial thing here is that patients have access to the best possible services on the NHS and that they do so according to the founding principles of the health service – free at the point of delivery and available to all on the basis of need.” He defended the coalition’s expansion of private provision in the NHS, saying “we want to give patients more choice about where, when and how they can access their health services and patients are clearly making choices about services that meet a broad range of their needs.”