Private hospitals face new checks

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The Independent Online
A CRACKDOWN on low standards in the private health sector is being planned in the wake of the scandal surrounding the work of gynaecologist Rodney Ledward, the surgeon accused of injuring more than 400 women.

The General Medical Council can discipline individual doctors such as Mr Ledward, who was struck off last September, but Ministers believe an independent watchdog is needed to carry out checks on standards of care in private hospitals and clinics.

An inquiry into the Ledward case was ordered last month by Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, following mounting criticism into how Mr Ledward, was allowed to continue practising for so long without the alarm being raised.

Mr Ledward operated at the William Harvey hospital in Ashford, Kent, but he had a flourishing practice at private Bupa hospitals. Mr Dobson is consulting on the proposal for more checks on private health sector hospitals and clinics but sources close to the Secretary of State made it clear that he intends to act.

Mr Dobson last night rejected Tory demands in the House of Lords - backed by the private health operators and the British Medical Association - for NHS checks through the Government's new Commission for Health Improvement to be extended to private practice.

"The Tories are again pushing the agenda of the private health sector. We do think it needs regulating, but we don't think it's for the NHS to regulate private health care," said a ministerial source.

Ministers privately said they would not allow the commission to be used by the private sector to endorse its clinics at the taxpayers' expense. "The NHS would end up picking up the tab. We don't think that is right," said the source.

The Department of Health is against allowing the private sector to be self regulating, and is looking at plans for a powerful body with statutory powers to investigate failures and close down persistent offenders. The private health sector and the medical profession believe it makes no sense to have a separate body to oversee the private health clinics, while the Commission for Health Improvement carries out a similar task on the NHS.

The Secretary of State's refusal to allow Tory amendments to the Government NHS Bill, which sets up the commission, will be seen as further evidence of his hostility to private health care. Mr Dobson said last year that he wanted to make the NHS so good that only "the barmy" would use the private health service.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, reinforced the message in his Budget by announcing that employees will have to pay national insurance contributions on the value of private company health schemes.

Mr Dobson is ready to take private finance for NHS-run hospitals, but rejects the claim, made by the Tories, that the private health service is taking pressure off the NHS and should be encouraged.

Ann Widdecombe, the Tory spokeswoman on health, said he owed a "debt to the private sector" for pioneering the idea of health centres in shopping malls, which Mr Dobson announced yesterday he was promoting through the NHS.

pounds 100m for NHS, page 8

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