Despite an estimated saving of pounds 120m a year for the NHS which would flow from the scheme, there were warnings that it would result in soaring insurance costs, more hit-and-run incidents and hidden bureaucratic and legal costs.
The protests came after the Law Commission, the Government's law-reform body, suggested that the NHS should have the right to recoup the costs of treatment.
Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, said that the idea, proposed by the commission in a consultation paper, would have to be carefully scrutinised before the Government could endorse it.
The 1988 Road Traffic Act already obliges insurers liable for road-accident injuries to pay the "reasonable" expenses of hospitals, subject to statutory capping, while private medical insurers are able to recoup treatment costs from defendants' insurers across the board. The commission said that there was a "strong case" for the NHS similarly to be able to claw back its costs. Professor Andrew Burrows, a commissioner, said: "We think it is particularly important to raise for public debate the question whether the NHS should be given a right to recoup, from those who negligently cause injury, the cost of free health care provided to victims."
Precedents for the state clawing back already exist, such as the right of the Department of Social Security to recoup welfare benefits.
The cost of treating accident victims on the NHS is estimated at pounds 1bn a year although only 12 per cent are successful in bringing negligence claims. The commission says that if a scheme were introduced, it should take the form of the NHS having a direct claim against a defendant after the victim has secured damages.
A spokeswoman for the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts said the association was interested in the proposal but concerned at potentially massive bureaucratic costs. "On the surface, it looks very good, but we would have to look at the cost of recouping the money," she said.
She added: "It is a very important proposal because we do not want the NHS to be disadvantaged in the comparison with the private sector, which is already able to exercise this power."
But a spokeswoman for the Automobile Association said the plan would add to insurance costs for all motorists, both those who caused accidents through negligence and those who were safe drivers. She said: "There are a million uninsured drivers already and we believe this will simply push the figure higher."
Edmund King, head of campaigns at the Royal Automobile Club, said: "This will create a bureaucratic nightmare. The motorist already contributes heavily towards the National Health Service through the taxes levied on road users."Reuse content