A Conservative MP called for an “honest debate” about introducing charges for NHS treatment, arguing that they would help the health service focus on “the essentials”.
Sir Edward Leigh, who sits on the Public Accounts Commission, said the Government might have to “think the unthinkable” and charge patients because of increased pressure on A&E departments.
Ministers did not explicitly rule out new fees when asked by the Tory MP, instead noting they were attempting to avoid overburdening the health service.
“In terms of A&E we do have problems, particularly with people coming from rural areas. For those of us who rely completely on the NHS this obviously a matter of vital concern,” Sir Edward asked ministers during Health Questions in the House of Commons.
“I just wondered whether we should have an honest debate about this, to try and recognise that we do have an ageing population, that our A&E times are stressed, and we may have to either tax people more, or even think the unthinkable, and charge people for non…”
After he was interrupted by heckling from other MPs, Sir Edward continued: “Ah, see, it’s unthinkable, but you have to concentrate on the essentials. Let’s have an honest debate about the finances of the NHS.”
Health minister Philip Dunne gave a cautious response, saying only that Government policy was aimed at avoiding increased pressure on the NHS.
“My honourable friend will be aware that the sustainability and transformation plans that have been discussed earlier today are designed to bring closer integration of health providers and commissioners within a health system area … the ambition is to integrate better health and social care provision in order to avoid some of the challenges that he’s identified,” he said.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders told The Independent after the Commons exchange that the Government should rule out extra charges for the health service altogether.
“It beggars belief that the Tory frontbench are now not even prepared to dismiss ridiculous suggestions like charging NHS patients to use services,” he said.
“I’m all for an honest debate about NHS finances, that is that we have been calling for, but that can never include charges for A&E or other NHS services.
“Of course we are only having this conversation because six years of Tory underfunding is pushing our health service to the brink.
“Jeremy Hunt needs to act urgently to set out a rescue package for the NHS and to rule out the shocking suggestion that patients should face charges.”
The NHS currently charges a flat fee for prescriptions, as well as regulated fees for eyecare and dental treatment, but most treatment and doctors' appointments have been free at the point of use since the service was set up.
The Conservative manifesto says the party supports and NHS free at the point of use.
In a statement released after the Commons exchange through the Department for Health, the minister Mr Dunne said: “This story has no foundation. The public can be absolutely assured that under this Government, the NHS will remain free at the point of use. That's why we're investing £10bn in its own plan for the future, including almost £4bn this year, to sustain and improve services for patients.”
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