NHS may help sell private insurance

Hospital trusts conference: Cash battles dominate
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The Independent Online
NHS Trusts are poised to strike a deal with Norwich Union, Britain's third biggest private health insurer, which could see trust hospitals promoting the sale of the company's policies to patients.

The controversial move follows a decision by Bupa earlier this year to offer its subscribers cover in a network of "preferred provider" private hospitals, which excludes NHS pay beds.

The NHS Trust Federation claims that move could cost the NHS pounds 50m over four years in lost income from Bupa private patients. This would threaten both NHS services which are subsidised by the profits the NHS makes from treating private patients, and put at risk Private Finance Initiative deals to build new NHS hospitals, which in some cases rely on revenue from private patients as well as the health service.

The likely deal with Norwich Union - and possibly other smaller private insurers - is the Trust Federation's attempt to hit back at Bupa and preserve its private patient income.

The package has yet to go to the Trust Federation's council for approval. But Marco Cereste, its chairman, said yesterday there was "definitely a deal to be done". The arrangement could in time see NHS hospitals actively promoting Norwich Union cover to patients - the first time in the service's 50-year history that it would have actively promoted private health insurance to patients. "If there is a particular scheme which we see as of benefit to us and particularly to our patients, it would be wrong of us not to promote it," said Mr Cereste.

Trusts would help sell the product by telling patients wanting private cover that they would be "supporting your local NHS hospital" by taking a policy which would specifically cover them for treatment in NHS pay-beds.

Trusts would also emphasise the safety of private treatment in the NHS where the back-up of a full district general hospital is available on site - including the intensive care and other facilities - which many private hospitals lack.

Earlier this year, Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, stamped on proposals that NHS Trusts should enter tie-ups with private insurers to provide their own branded private medical insurance for patients.

That, he said, was "no part of the Government's plans for the NHS" and could not be introduced without "an unacceptable risk to public funds". Under the deal the federation is considering, however, trusts would merely help promote Norwich Union's product, not bear the financial risk of underwriting the cover.

Yesterday, however, he said of the proposed Norwich Union deal that its acceptability would "depend a bit on the way it is promoted". Sources at Norwich Union said the scheme would build on Trust Care, a policy it already markets which limits cover to care in NHS pay beds, whose charges in general are lower than those of private hospitals.

Bob Abberley, head of health for Unison, the public sector union, condemned the potential deal. "This is the shape of things to come under the Tory NHS," he said. "It just proves that what we have been saying about increased privatisation is happening before our very eyes."