Milburn asks public how to spend an extra £16.5bn on health service

The biggest consultation exercise by a modern government was announced yesterday by ministers seeking the best way to spend £16.5bn on the NHS.

Suggestions are to be invited from the public on how to spend the extra cash, allocated in the March budget over the next four years, in what Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, described as a "once in a lifetime opportunity".

The first "census day" for the NHS on 31 May will canvass opinion from patients in all parts of the service including hospitals, GP surgeries and pharmacies. Twelve million leaflets will be distributed for patients to make suggestions, two public meetings will be held in Leeds and London of 100 people and an internet website has been set up to receive proposals from the public.

The results of the six-week, £500,000 exercise will be presented to a meeting on 15 June of six teams set up by the government, which will draw up a national plan for the NHS for publication in July. The teams, which include the major medical organisations and leaders of the professions as well as patients, have been told to devise ideas for modernising every aspect of the service.

"The time has come to have an NHS where the patients are listened to and not talked at," Mr Milburn said.

Critics said the consultation would distract attention from the serious business of spending money. Since the announcement in March by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, of an extra £2bn for the NHS for this year, hospital chief executives have found themselves in the unfamiliar position of looking for new ways to expand.

The NHS Confederation and the Consumers' Association said the consultation should be on a rolling basis to provide patients with a continuing voice but the British Medical Association warned against raising expectations beyond what even the extra billions pledged could provide.

Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the BMA, said: "We hope that the Government is prepared to face up to potentially unpalatable messages, namely that public expectations of the NHS may require even more funding than has been earmarked for the next five years. Doctors in particular are very concerned that this survey will reveal that, despite all the pressures upon the NHS, the public expects even more."

The BMA said special efforts should be made to obtain the views of those not normally canvassed, such as the elderly and the chronically sick.

Mr Milburn told a meeting of one of the modernisation teams in London: "One of the biggest challenges we face is to transform the NHS from a service built around the needs of professionals to one built around the needs of users." He said he wanted an NHS "where the consumer is king".