GPs' spending on private care for patients soars

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Family doctors are spending fourteen times as much money on private health care for their patients as they were four years ago, a health minister has revealed.

The figures, given in response to questions from a Labour MP, show that fundholding general practitioners spent pounds 52.5m in the private sector in 1994-5. In 1991-2, they spent just pounds 3.7m.

Kevin Hughes, a Labour whip and member for Doncaster North, says that in his own constituency GPs spent more than pounds 500,000 outside the NHS, while the local hospital had to close wards because of the loss of income it had suffered.

Fundholding GPs, who now make up more than half of the total number of general practitioners, receive their budgets from their local health authorities but are able to spend them where they choose.

Mr Hughes said that private providers were often able to offer cheaper services because they only took on routine cases, while NHS hospitals had to offer expensive emergency and long- term care. "The Government is slowly but surely privatising the health service. Whilst they are saying they are not doing this, more and more money is being spent in the private sector".

The British Medical Association says that most of the money spent in this way is used for fertility services, abortions and hospices. Fundholders also use their extra freedom to "bulk buy" anything from knee operations to care for the terminally ill, and are able to save money by doing so.

A spokesman for the Association added that many doctors were using private health services because they were obtainable more quickly and helped to keep waiting lists down.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said some of the money could be being spent with charitable organisations.

"Both health authorities and GP fund-holders are charged with purchasing the best possible care, whether this be NHS or other providers," she said.