The proposals would increase the number of civilian patients being treated and allow the Ministry of Defence to keep open more of its medical facilities. Ministers believe that the move would be popular, allowing greater access to the hospitals, which at present have many spare beds. The plans have been given added urgency by the wholesale review of defence support staff being undertaken by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence.
The results of the 'Frontline First' Defence Costs Study will be announced in July. Although Mr Rifkind has refused to predict how many jobs would have to go, there is speculation that the figure could be as high as 20,000.
Under proposals outlined last year, the MoD intends to close four of its seven mainland hospitals by 1998. The proposals for NHS trust status are understood to refer to the remaining three, in Gosport, Aldershot and Wroughton, whose future is under review.
At present all MoD hospitals are run as military establishments, like barracks, and are funded out of the defence budget. They already accept large numbers of civilian patients free of charge up to a cost limit. The proposals would allow the MoD to claim cash for patients they treat on behalf of the NHS.
The Department of Health is interested in the proposal, although ministers are anxious that any development should not add to the financial burden of health authorities.
The MoD is concerned that any new plan should ensure that armed services patients would have priority at any time of national emergency. There is also concern that trust status would transform the character of military hospitals - from institutions basically atunedto the armed services to units drawing money from the NHS.