Labour to refight pay bed battle

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LABOUR is poised to refight the battles of the 1970s over NHS pay beds and private patients, according to a draft of the party's health consultation document that has been passed to the Independent.

With the final version due for publication next month, the draft states that Labour 'would - as a preliminary step to phasing out private provision from NHS facilities - restrict the number of private beds which could be made available for treatment, so that NHS patients would not face needlessly long waiting times'.

At the same time the party will also consider a levy on private treatment outside the NHS to reimburse the service for 'the skills and experience gained through training and employment within the NHS'.

The policy amounts to a re-run of the 1970s when Barbara Castle legislated to phase pay beds out of the NHS, legislation the Tories scrapped but which had already led to the growth of private hospitals outside the NHS. The crackdown on private practice is understood to remain in the final document, despite all references to getting rid of pay beds being eliminated from Labour's 1992 election manifesto.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, is known to be alarmed at the growth in private practice in NHS hospitals since Government changes came in. For NHS trusts, these removed limits on pay bed numbers and availability, and some trusts have entered into fierce competition with private hospitals for patients.

Some trusts have linked up with insurers and advertise their private patient facilities. Trusts claim the income - pounds 157m - helps subsidise NHS work, but Labour politicians believe the NHS is in fact subsidising private practice.

The consultation document says: 'We will seek to ensure that the true cost of private practice is fully identified and reimbursed to the NHS. Such costs include not only the direct use of facilities . . . but the skills and experience gained through training and employment within the NHS'.

The document argues that the diversion of routine surgery to the private sector puts up NHS costs because 'overheads are concentrated on . . . provision which is not attractive for private providers. We will examine the feasibility of an additional charge for all private services, to take these into account.' In addition, Labour would 'look at sensible restrictions on the amount of private work which can be undertaken by anyone contracted to, or working for, the NHS'.