NHS pays for private ops to 'fix' long waiting lists

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THE National Health Service is paying its own doctors to carry out operations in private hospitals at private rates of pay.

Several purchasers have been negotiating with private hospitals to treat people who are on the verge of waiting more than 12 months. Removing them from the waiting lists before the end of March means they do not appear in the year-end figures for waiting lists.

Last week, the Wiltshire and Bath Health Commission wrote to patients who had been waiting nine months, to ask if they had any objection to being treated in a private hospital. The commission says it is negotiating with both private and NHS providers about treating up to 70 patients on waiting lists at the St Margaret Hospital, Swindon.

A hospital spokesman, Ian Keeber, said: "Private hospitals in Swindon and Bath are being looked at. The target is to make sure that no one is waiting more than 12 months by the end of the year."

In many cases, the treatment will be carried out by the same consultant as the NHS hospital would have used - but at far greater expense. "Had the money been available earlier we could have made plans to keep the work in Swindon and we were hoping to do that. It is disappointing that patients will now go to another hospital and be treated by the same surgeon. It is very frustrating."

Alison Hyde, a spokesman for the health commission, said: "A taskforce has been set up to make sure patients do not wait longer than 12 months. Our concern is that many of the patients have been on the waiting list for nine months and if we don't find treatment they will be over the target by the end of March."

Most NHS consultants also have private work, for which they are paid fees in addition to their NHS salaries. They would receive such fees from the NHS if they treated NHS patients privately. "It is almost inevitable that the operations in a private hospital would be by an NHS consultant," Ms Hyde said.

Bupa, although not involved in the Wiltshire negotiations, also has contracts with NHS purchasers. Dr Natalie Macdonald, head of clinical services for Bupa, said: "We have a network of 29 hospitals and some see more of this work than others. I would say it is well under 10 per cent of the volume of work, and included in that is fundholding work for GPs."

In another development, casualty departments at some hard-up NHS hospitals have been billing private health companies for treating accident victims.

Patients are being asked whether or not they pay for private insurance; if they do, the insurance company may get a bill. The companies have protested that patients have the right not to use their insurance, particularly when they are receiving emergency treatment.