Private patients get pounds 250 NHS bonus

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The Independent Online
POLITICIANS ROUNDED on a private healthcare company yesterday for paying patients pounds 250 a night if they occupy an NHS bed.

Norwich Union Healthcare, which offers the insurance plan, was criticised for making NHS waiting lists longer and inciting bribery of staff. The plan, called Fair and Square, was launched last March and allows subscribers to choose between private and NHS treatment. If they opt for the NHS they get a pounds 250 a night payment. The premium for a 35-year-old is quoted as pounds 36.72 a month.

It is feared that patients might use the money to bribe staff to jump waiting lists or to allow them to stay in hospital longer, increasing waiting lists.

David Hinchliffe, chairman of the Select Committee on Health, has tabled a motion calling on the company to withdraw the plan. He told The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 yesterday that offering cash rewards left the NHS "wide open" to corruption. "People who choose to go into the NHS are not going in to support the NHS but to fill their pockets."

Gisela Stuart, a Health minister, said the plan would have an "extremely distorting effect" on the NHS but because it was legal and not anti-competitive the government had no plans to remove it. "Any system that allows people paying for private diagnosis to get on a waiting list quicker distorts the system."

Tim Baker, commercial director of Norwich Union, said in a statement that the plan was a successful product, which the company saw no reason to withdraw. "Fair and Square customers will not stay longer than necessary in NHS hospital beds," he said. "We know the usual length of hospital stay for each condition and if this is exceeded we investigate. We also have complete faith in the integrity of NHS doctors and nurses and do not believe they would get involved in any kind of collusion." He said that eight out of 10 Fair and Square policyholders opted to go private.

Some patients in England face a four-year wait for an out-patient appointment with a consultant, according to a report by the College of Health.

The study found waiting times after referral by a GP of 208 weeks for one orthopaedic surgeon, and 147 and 145 weeks for foot specialists in two separate hospitals. In neurology the worst waiting time was 126 weeks and there was a 95-week wait to see an eye specialist.