Dobson invokes wrath over hospital charges

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JFrank Dobson's refusal to rule out new charges for the NHS, which provoked the wrath of Cabinet colleagues and medical organisations, was blamed yesterday on the existence of current hospital charges which penalise the poorest patients.

Ministers were furious with the Secretary of State for Health for a gaffe over the possibility of charging for visits by the family doctor which plunged the Government into its first serious row since the election, and opened up Tory charges of "betraying" the voters.

Mr Dobson's reluctance to clear the air on charges was attributed to the little known practice under which the poorest patients are charged for long-term care, by making deductions from their benefits, while others who are better off receive it free.

The existence of the anomaly makes it a prime candidate for consideration in the Government's current review of the NHS's pounds 44bn.

Mr Dobson was effectively slapped down by Tony Blair for fuelling the speculation. "We want to repair the NHS after years of Conservative damage, not undermine it," the Prime Minister said during a question-and-answer session with the public in Worcester.

Health experts said Mr Dobson had been put "between a rock and hard place" by the Treasury but coming after the rows over his warning that tobacco sponsorship of sport would be stopped, and attacks on bosses for producing "alcopops", questions were being asked around Whitehall about his long-term future.

Downing Street ordered an inquest into Mr Dobson's remarks and his appearance on the BBC Today programme yesterday when he failed to scotch the reports. The British Medical Association echoed the general dismay by condemning the suggestion of new charges as "unfair and inefficient." A statement last night from Mr Dobson said: "Ideas floated by journalists today are simply scare stories."

Some of Mr Dobson's senior colleagues were highly critical of his handling, although he had adopted the Treasury line that nothing could ruled in, and nothing ruled out.

Ministerial sources said Mr Dobson should have made it clear there will be no hospital closures this winter.