NHS pays an extra £30m for patients to go private

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The NHS has paid private hospitals a £30m premium to perform operations on health service patients, the Government said yesterday.

The NHS has paid private hospitals a £30m premium to perform operations on health service patients, the Government said yesterday.

Surgery done by the independent sector but paid for by the NHS - to cut waiting times - costs 43 per cent more than if it was carried out by the health service.

Figures released by the Department of Health show that the NHS spent £100m last year treating 60,000 patients in the independent sector. If those patients had all been treated by the NHS, the bill would have been £70m.

John Hutton, the Health minister, said the cost of "buying" private-sector care for NHS patients was high because the extra capacity was often bought at short notice, or on a small scale by individual NHS trusts, rather than in bulk.

He defended the practice, saying: "Using the independent sector has allowed us to treat thousands of patients much more quickly than if they had had to wait on the NHS. I don't think that is wrong. I think it would be morally wrong not to do that."

The 2,000 pages of NHS finance statistics, released yesterday, show there are also wide variations between different NHS hospitals in terms of how much each operation costs the health service.

At the moment, primary care trusts (PCTs) commission and buy operations from hospital trusts who charge a wide range of prices.

From this year, the Government is introducing a national "NHS price list", a fixed tariff of surgery costs which all trusts will have to abide by.

Hospitals which deliver surgery at under the tariff will still get the full cost from the PCT, and will be allowed to keep and reinvest the surplus.

But hospitals that still have operating costs above the tariff will lose out, as they will still only receive the fixed price from their commissioning PCT.

Traditionally, specialist hospitals which have high staffing bills and a more complicated mixture of cases, have much higher prices than, for instance, district general hospitals.

Ministers say the tariff will improve NHS efficiency, and improve quality by taking the element of price out of the equation when PCTs are commissioning hospital activity.

But there are concerns that some hospitals will struggle to hit the tariffs, and could close because of financial difficulties. The tariffs will be phased in over the next five years and will become fully operational by 2008. They will also be applied to private hospitals to which NHS work is contracted.