MPs challenge NHS 'apartheid'

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AN ALL-PARTY committee of MPs is to hold an inquiry into the Government's plans to end the right of elderly patients to receive long-term care funded by the NHS which will force those with more than pounds 3,000 to pay for a private nursing home or extra care at home.

When Parliament resumes in October, the Health Select Committee will examine the new draft guidance issued to health authorities on Friday which has caused outrage among Opposition MPs and organisations representing pensioners and carers.

Alice Mahon, a Labour member of the committee, has also written to Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, asking for an emergency adjournment debate immediately after the recess, as well as the Prime Minister, accusing him of breaking a pledgemade to her in July when he 'guaranteed' that NHS care would remain free at the point of delivery.

Mrs Mahon, MP for Halifax, said she and other select committee members would force the committee to investigate during its on-going inquiry into purchasing. 'This is apartheid against the elderly,' she said.

The existing guidelines, issued in 1989, state that no NHS patient can be forced out of hospital into a private nursing home against his or her wishes if they or their relatives would be responsible for the home's charges.

Under the new rules health authorities will draw up their own local definition of who is entitled to continuing health care. If they decide a person no longer needs medical care in hospital but they cannot look after themselves at home, local authority social services departments will assess their needs and decide whether they need to be in a care home or assisted to live in their own home. If the person has assets or savings of more than pounds 3,000 they will have to contribute towards the cost. If their assets are more than pounds 8,000 they must pay the full fee.

Nicholas Winterton, a senior Tory MP and former chairman of the Health Select Committee, is writing to fellow Conservative MP Marion Roe, now chairwoman of the committee, urging her to hold an inquiry.

He is also planning to write to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, and John Major, expressing his total opposition to the proposed new policy. 'I detest this move,' he said. 'This is a materialisation of my worst fears that we have moved to a situation where there is now a strict demarcation between medical and social care. It now appears that without proper debate, but in guidelines sneaked out during recess, dramatic changes are likely to be implemented. It's going to cause immense anguish and heartache and worry.'

Mr Winterton said he would be telling the Prime Minister that the Conservatives should be ashamed of such a policy and he as a Conservative could not possibly support it. He also warned it would be electorally disastrous as a large proportion of pensioners affected were those who had worked hard and saved hard all their lives, and were likely to be Conservative voters.

'Many thousands of people are going to lose their life savings and have to sell their homes topay for their nursing home care. It will have serious voting implications. It's an absolute timebomb. This is introducing a fundamental change to the NHS,' he said.

Mr Winterton called on other Tory MPs to lobby for the guidelines to be dropped. 'I would hope that any of my parliamentary colleagues who feel unhappy and are as angry as I am make their views known to the party whips and to the Secretary of State.'

However, John Bowis, social security minister, who announced the new draft proposals, insisted that they did not mark the end of the 'cradle to the grave' NHS. He said: 'Anyone whom doctors assess needs continuing health care will receive it, and if they have to go into nursing homes that will be funded by the NHS. The NHS services will continue to be free for those who need it. If they need social care they cannot be forced to go into a private home at their own expense. ' Mr Bowis denied there were plans to force everyone to take out private health insurance to cover future health care, but he said the insurance industry was examining how to develop this market and the Government would encourage it.

If the NHS does not pay for residential or nursing home care pensioners will have to pay the fees, which average between pounds 200 and pounds 400 for residential and nursing homes, and can rise to pounds 700 a week for the most luxurious, until their savings are reduced to pounds 3,000. Unless their spouse or a dependent relative lives in the property it will have to be sold and the proceeds used to pay the fees. Once the savings are exhausted, the social services department will pay, up to a locally agreed maximum.

Ron Denny, organiser of the Pensioners' Rights Campaign, is planning to organise protests and demonstrations by 'commando' groups around the country. 'This will cause untold hardship to hundreds of thousands of pensioners,' he said.