NHS reforms moved swiftly up the political agenda at the outset of campaigning for the local and European elections after the charity Age Concern demanded an inquiry into why two pensioners were refused treatment by their local hospitals.
Johnnie Gray, 73, a former bandleader from Brighton with chronic arthritis, and Fred Steadman, 78, of London, who had chest pains, both said yesterday that they were told they could not be accepted for treatment because of their age.
Mr Gray, who during his career played saxophone with Ted Heath's band and on some Beatles records, as well as leading his own band, said that when he asked Newhaven Downs hospital in East Sussex why physiotherapy was being discontinued he was told: 'We are sorry Mr Gray, we can't treat you because you are over 65.'
Mr Steadman said that when his GP telephoned the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London, to refer him to a heart specialist, the reply was 'they wouldn't accept me because I was over 70'.
Sue Marshall, in charge of physiotherapy at Brighton Healthcare Trust, responsible for the Newhaven hospital, told BBC radio: 'There has to be a fund cut-off point.' People below 65 would be more likely to be at work and would need to get better more quickly. 'It is a fairly arbitrary level of cut- off.' John Spiers, chairman of the trust, denied any policy of discrimination. It was a question of targeting care.
During furious exchanges with Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, Mr Major was twice asked by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, to withdraw his accusation that Mrs Beckett had been 'peddling untruths' in claiming that the patients had been denied treatment because of the Government's NHS changes. Amid uproar from the Labour benches, Mr Major rephrased his answer to insist that Mrs Beckett had been 'misleading the House' and that neither of the two patients had been refused treatment. In both cases they were 'offered better treatment'.
While ministers insist that that the setting of priorities by hospital trusts may mean discontinuing some treatments at certain ages, there was widespread embarrassment at apparent examples of what David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, called the 'blanket exclusion' of patients on the grounds of age.
As both the Brighton Trust and The Royal Free Trust sought to deflect charges that they operated blanket discrimination, the Royal Free admitted that Mr Steadman's GP, Laurence Buckman, had been given 'inappropriate advice'.
Mr Steadman was refused treatment because of his age after he had gone to Dr Buckman complaining of chest pain. 'He needed to see a heart specialist,' Dr Buckman said. 'I phoned the admitting team at the Royal Free and was told that his district health authority does not have a contract for people of his age to go to that hospital, although it is the nearest and he has been treated there before. I was told they would not admit him under any circumstances because of his age. He obtained treatment elsewhere.'
Elderly people in Kent have protested at a decision by an NHS trust to treat the over-75s at a separate hospital from younger patients. Patients from Tunbridge Wells who are over 75 will be treated at the Pembury Hospital, while others will be treated at the Kent and Sussex Hospital.
The Kent and Sussex Weald NHS Trust said older patients would get better specialist care by geriatric consultants. Part of the decision had been brought about by the reorganisation needed to make sure junior doctors worked fewer hours.
Critics say that medical need, not age, should determine where patients are treated. Pembury has no accident and emergency department and only limited surgical facilities.
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