Patients will today be promised six new rights to NHS treatment as the Government attempts to push through a new raft of public service reforms in the run-up to the forthcoming general election.
Gordon Brown will promise to scrap unpopular centrally-imposed NHS targets as he unveils a national prospectus seen as critical to his attempts to restore his authority and fight back against the Conservatives.
His Budget-style document, Building Britain's Future, will extend a consumer-driven approach to public services and include new measures to revive the economy. There will be more money for house-building by councils and housing associations, who will give greater priority to local people in order to prevent newcomers to an area from jumping the queue.
In an interview with The Independent yesterday, the Health Secretary Andy Burnham disclosed that the new "entitlements" for patients would include a right to:
*An operation within 18 weeks of patients first seeing their GP
*A free health check-up for all at the age of 40
*Treatment from an NHS dentist
*Die at home if they suffer from a long-term medical condition
*See a cancer specialist within two weeks
*Be treated in accident & emergency departments within four hours.
Although patients would not be able to sue the NHS for not providing these guaranteed services, Primary Care Trusts would be forced to send people to a hospital in another area or, in extreme cases, for private treatment if they cannot deliver it in NHS facilities.
Some of the entitlements, such as the 18-week limit for operations, are currently among the targets set by Whitehall for NHS managers.
Ministers will sweep away these targets and put patients in the driving seat by ensuring they know and demand their basic rights. Targets to be axed include a 26-week maximum wait for in-patient treatment.
A plethora of data collection, form-filling and box-ticking will be abolished later this year after a review by the NHS National Quality Board.
Clinicians willbehandedmore freedom to run their own budgets and to play a role inmanaging the service, breaking down the traditional divide between them and managers. Mr Burnham conceded that, with waiting-list problems addressed, targets had become a “millstone” and had to be lifted. The best elements of the targets system would now become “permanent service standards” to entrench the progress made in recent years. “The pressure for continuing improvements will come from patients, not politicians; that is a fundamental change,” he said.
In the interview, the Health Secretary denied that a squeeze on public spending would put the new patients’ rights in jeopardy, but stopped short of his previous promise that the NHS budget would continue to grow after 2011 – which the Treasury refused to endorse. “I can’t do Alistair Darling’s job for him,” he said. “What I would say is just look at our record. Labour has always looked after the NHS. It has been our priority and will continue to be our priority.” He admitted that annual growth in NHS spending is set to slow.
“The catch-up [with the EU average] has been done. It is now a case of maintaining what we have done.”
Mr Burnham added: “The NHS cannot be seen to be protected and immune from the pressures that other public services are facing.”
He promised a major switch of resources to preventing ill-health. “It has been fringe; it needs to become mainstream,” he said. The NHS would need to become smarter in order to meet pressures such as new treatments and a rising elderly population. In the long term, it would face “tough questions” such as whether to switch resources away from the acute sector.
He denied that the new rights would be demanded by the pushy middle classes rather than by those relying most on services.“We have got to be good at telling people what they can expect,” he said.
Mr Burnham’s comments come at the start of the annual British Medical Association conference in Liverpool, which yesterday released details of a poll claiming nine out of 10 people fear that NHS services will be cut as a result of the recession. The survey found 89 per cent fear waiting times for treatment will increase, while 85 per cent think there will be more charges for NHS treatments. But only four out of 10 would also be willing to pay more taxes to protect growth in NHS funding.
BMA chairman, Dr Hamish Meldrum, said: “These results show how anxious the public is about the effects of the recession on the health service.
While we appreciate that the Governmentneeds to steer the country through this difficult economic period, we urge it not to do so at the expense of NHS funding.”
In a progress report a year after his NHS review, Lord Darzi of Denham, the surgeon who is Junior Health Minister, will say tomorrow: “Quality is the thread that is being stitched into the very fabric of the NHS.”
Mr Brown will focus heavily on “bread-and-butter issues” such as public services as he relaunches his premiership. In a Commons statement this afternoon, he will also outline the draft legislative programme for the Queen’s Speech in November, the last before the general election.
Yesterday the Tories accused Labour of covering up the need for public spending cuts amid growing signs that the Treasury would delay the next government- wide spending review until after the election.