NHS reforms will lead to supermarket-style discount surgery deals

The NHS is bracing itself for a price war in which hospital trusts will offer supermarket-style discounts to fight each other for business.

The Government is to permit hospitals to compete on price for the first time, raising the prospect of two-for-one deals on surgery and cut-rate consultations for certain specialties.

The dramatic shift towards a more commercial market in the NHS is announced in a single paragraph in the NHS Operating Framework for 2011-12 published last week. Critics described it as “seriously worrying,” with the potential to lead to forced hospital closures, higher death rates and escalating political tension.

Paragraph 5.43 says: “One new flexibility being introduced in 2011-12 is the opportunity for providers to offer services to commissioners at less than the published mandatory tariff price, where both commissioner and provider agree.”

It adds: “Commissioners will want to be sure that there is no detrimental impact on quality, choice or competition as a result of any such agreement.”

The chief executive of one major NHS trust, who did not want to be named, said: “From my perspective, this is very challenging. If [price competition] is implemented significantly this will be a full blooded market. I will have to do as the supermarkets do.

"There will be huge pressure on me from my board to reduce prices and increase market share. There are a lot of bullish GPs out there saying they will go to the cheapest provider already. This gives the opportunity for trusts to undercut one another on price. We will be forced to act much more commercially. Hospitals will have to think more radically about restructuring their services. It could lead to huge tension politically.”

The move is guaranteed to create maximum turbulence in the NHS as Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, seeks to drive through the biggest reform in its history, abolishing central management and devolving control of 80 per cent of the budget to GP consortia.

Prices for operations and other treatments are currently fixed by the Department of Health and hospital trusts are only permitted to compete on quality, offering better outcomes, cleaner wards or shorter waiting times to win contracts from GPs.

From next April, the national “tariff” of prices set by the health department will effectively serve as a cap, with hospital trusts free to discount prices below it in agreement with the new GP Consortia.

Professor John Appleby, health economist at the Kings Fund, the health policy think tank, said research on the effect of price competition on the quality of medical care during the 1990s internal market introduced by the previous Tory government showed that it led to higher mortality.

“There is the potential for a price war. It is clear that some hospitals are well positioned to offer discounts - big hospitals can cross-subsidise their services. The risk is that some hospitals may lower their prices, which will be superficially appealing, but offer a less good operation and GP commissioners may not be able to spot that it is less good.

"Price is easily observable, quality is not. They [the Department of Health] are saying commissioners must watch out for any ‘detrimental effect on quality’ - so they are saying themselves there is potential for that. How can they reassure themselves that GPs won’t be deleteriously affected?”

Zack Cooper of the London School of Economics, author of an influential study showing that competition in health markets increases quality but only when prices are fixed, said: “I was very worried when I saw that paragraph. Research shows that with price competition prices go down but quality tends to fall. In simple terms price competition leads to higher death rates. With fixed prices, quality tends to rise. Quality is so hard to measure, it is much easier to measure price. One paragraph at the end of the NHS Operating Framework could have profound effects.”

Nigel Edwards, acting chief executive of the NHS Confederation representing hospital trusts said: “We could see people being pressured by commissioners. That would be a worry. If the Americans are having difficulty with it [price competition], spending large amounts on administration, we need to be cautious. I’d like to compete on quality not on price.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "Commissioning must continue to be driven by delivering the best possible care for patients and competition should be based on quality and efficiency.

"This flexibility can only be used if there is agreement between provider and commissioner, and its use must not have a detrimental impact on quality, choice or competition. Where this flexibility is used, the money that it could release will be available to commissioners for investment in frontline services.

"We expect parties to any agreement to monitor its operation and to ensure that there are no adverse effects."

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: Reception Teacher

    £120 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: An excellent three form entry scho...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher

    £120 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A lovely primary school in the bor...

    The Green Recruitment Company: Mechanical Maintenance Engineer

    £11 - £18 Per Hour: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Mechanical Maint...

    The Green Recruitment Company: Commercial Construction Manager

    £65000 Per Annum bonus & benefits package: The Green Recruitment Company: The ...

    Day In a Page

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'