MPs warn against long-term NHS use of private hospitals

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The Government's controversial decision to use private hospitals to cut waiting lists in the NHS must not become a long-term answer to the shortage of beds in the public sector, MPs will warn today.

The Government's controversial decision to use private hospitals to cut waiting lists in the NHS must not become a long-term answer to the shortage of beds in the public sector, MPs will warn today.

A report by the Health Select Committee, published this morning, will raise a string of concerns about the policy of using private-sector beds to overcome the lack of capacity in the NHS.

While the MPs on the Labour-led committee will not directly oppose the Government move, they say it remains to be seen whether the greater use of the independent sector poses "no direct threat to resources in the NHS".

In particular, they express fears about medical staff moving to better-paid jobs in the private sector and say that the Department of Health, with NHS trusts, should consider "ways of providing further incentives to staff to work for the NHS".

The report accepts that the private sector has a role in reducing waiting lists, but the MPs say the NHS must ensure that enough beds are provided to cope with future demand.

"We have no objection to the NHS combating shortages of capacity (for example lack of theatre space or shortages of beds staffed by nurses) by making use in the short term of the independent sector.

"We acknowledge that waiting lists of themselves entail costs in terms of additional burdens on social care, the welfare system and the health service itself as a consequence of the additional expense of treating more advanced conditions.

"However, we think it imperative that the NHS develops sufficient acute capacity to keep down waiting times."

The report comes after Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, announced last month that the NHS would receive an extra £40bn over the next five years.

But the MPs are critical of the way some NHS consultants are still able to treat private patients in NHS beds. All NHS trusts should be forced to carry out "a cost benefit analysis of the reclaiming for the NHS of capacity utilised to provide private pay beds in NHS hospitals", they say.

The report adds: "This could establish whether there are any trusts which might find it more cost-effective to use this capacity within the NHS instead of buying in operations from independent hospitals."

Referring to plans by Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, to force newly qualified consultants to work exclusively for the NHS for seven years, the MPs say this could result in a big increase in NHS capacity.

Where more senior consultants continue to work in both sectors, the MPs suggest that annual appraisals should be used to detect whether private work impacts on their NHS responsibilities.

Another concern is to ensure patients continue to get value for money and to prevent private hospitals from overcharging the NHS. The report adds: "We are also concerned that independent providers may sell activity to the NHS with a view to establishing a dependence on their services which would then put them in a position to increase prices."

The MPs do, however, support the much-criticised system of PFI, in which money is borrowed from the private sector to build hospitals, saying there is no evidence it leads to a reduction in beds.

* Tony Blair suggested last night the Budget's £8bn of tax rises for the NHS would not have been needed if the global economy had not slowed after 11 September. The Prime Minister told Newsnight that he had not misled the voters at the last election in not revealing plans to increase national insurance contributions. Mr Blair explained that the Wanless report into the needs of the NHS had made much clearer the amounts required.

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