Patients waiting more than a year for a hospital admission will be given the right to seek treatment in other areas or in the private sector under radical plans to extend choice in the NHS.

The health service will pay for a patient to "shop around" for faster treatment, whether it is provided by a hospital in another region, a private hospital, or by one overseas.

Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, who is determined to introduce greater choice for NHS patients, is expected to announce details of the new scheme in the next few weeks.

Until now, patients have been treated locally unless they have certain specialist conditions or they are pregnant women, who have traditionally had a say about where they give birth.

Because of logistical problems, the choice to seek treatment elsewhere will be phased in gradually, starting next year with patients who face delays of 12 to 15 months. They will be able to choose alternative hospitals, which could include private clinics that have already been lined up to provide 100,000 operations for the NHS.

Ministers are confident that by the end of next March, all hospital trusts will have managed to eliminate waits of more than 15 months. The new system will therefore target patients waiting more than a year.

They will include people waiting for knee, hip and other joint operations as well as those with chronic illnesses such as cancer.

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