Labour pledges shorter wait for treatment

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Indy Politics

Labour is promising to increase the number of operations carried out by private hospitals for the health service so that no patients will wait for more than 18 weeks for treatment by 2008.

Labour is promising to increase the number of operations carried out by private hospitals for the health service so that no patients will wait for more than 18 weeks for treatment by 2008.

A mini-manifesto on health will suggest today that about 250,000 "private" operations will take place on the NHS between now and 2008, doubling the number previously planned. Although reliance on private treatment worries some Labour traditionalists, only 7 per cent of operations will be carried out privately after the expansion.

The Government will increase the use of private hospitals so it can honour its pledge to introduce a 28-week maximum waiting time from when people see their GP to the day of their operation.

The document will announce the timetable for delivering the promise, and will say that it will be met by three methods - 130 new hospital building schemes, greater diversity of provision including the private sector, and more choice for patients.

People will be able to choose from between four or five hospitals by the end of this year. As more capacity becomes available, and supply exceeds demand in many areas for the first time, they will have a list of several dozen hospitals by the end of next year. By the end of 2008 they will have "unlimited choice" and be able to opt for any hospital.

Tony Blair and John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, who will launch the document, will contrast Labour's use of the private sector with Tory plans for the government to meet 50 per cent of the cost when patients opt for private treatment. They will argue that this would discriminate against the less well-off.

Mr Blair and Mr Reid will insist that Labour is "buying in" treatment from the private sector to reduce waiting times. Dismissing criticism that this amounts to back-door privatisation, they will stress that people will still be treated on the basis of clinical need and not ability to pay.

They will also contrast Labour's promise of an 18-week maximum wait with the state of the NHS when the party came to power in 1997, recalling that hundreds of people waited more than 18 months for an operation, thousands waited 15 months, tens of thousands waited more than 12 months and 118,000 waited more than nine months. According to Labour, latest figures show that only 24 people wait more than 12 months and 86 more than nine months.

Labour is to fight back on health after the Tories turned the table on what has traditionally been seen as a winning issue for the party by highlighting the case of Margaret Dixon, the woman from Cheshire whose shoulder operation was cancelled several times.

Ministers believe they will win the argument when voters compare the "free" treatment in private hospitals offered by Labour in line with NHS principles, with the Tory scheme for people to meet half the cost of being treated privately.

Labour says the Tory "patients' passport" scheme would take more than £1bn out of the NHS budget by subsidising private treatment. At the same time, a patient would have to find £3,250 for a typical hip operation and £5,750 for a heart operation.

But, the Tories believe their policy will be popular because the number of people who opt for private treatment has risen threefold since 1997 to avoid long waiting times on the NHS.

Today's document will also promise to withdraw money from hospitals which cancel operations and do not give patients another date within 28 days. The Tories say these "fines" will increase the problems of hospitals already struggling to balance their books.

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