Could they care less?

Philip HuntDeputy Leader Phil Hunt on why Ministers are in denial about the dire impact of their NHS 'reforms'

Nick Clegg’s decision to prioritise Lords reform ahead of stopping the Coalition government’s destructive health upheaval is looking more bizarre by the minute.

Every day brings more examples of the financial pressures the NHS is under as it is forced to make £20bn efficiency savings and simultaneously fund an unnecessary and unwanted £3bn reorganisation. Meanwhile, swingeing cuts in adult social care budgets are impacting on the abilities of hospitals to discharge patients back into their own homes or to community care. Together, all of this is taking a heavy toll as services are squeezed, and the pay and jobs of NHS workers come under threat.

In the South West, NHS employers are already planning pay cuts of up to 5%, reducing holiday leave and forcing staff to work longer shifts. Labour’s first NHS Check report has shown that crude, random rationing by health bodies goes far wider and deeper than first believed, with 125 previously free treatments restricted or even stopped in the past two years.

These restrictions are linked to arbitrary caps on the number of treatments provided, and there are also examples of cost-based restrictions. While this has previously related to some treatments, the scale and pace has drastically increased since the last election. Some restrictions are even being introduced which diverge from NICE guidelines and cover serious treatments affecting patients’ levels of pain, mobility and quality of life.

22 treatments or services were stopped altogether by at least one PCT or Clinical Commissioning Group. Patients in parts of England have been left facing charges for essential treatments such as cataracts, knee surgery and hip replacements as they were forced to go private or go without.

Alongside these cuts, Ministers have given hospitals the freedom and incentive to open up a private market in the NHS – with new rules allowing up to 49% of income from private work. Perverse incentives will start to come into play in such circumstances. Media reports suggest some hospitals are now charging for what they call self-funded treatments, which they argue are offered at competitive rates compared to treatment at private clinics. And a real concern is emerging of a worsening NHS that will lead to a two tier system where the better off are encouraged to opt out.

This is a clear sign of the chaos engulfing the NHS. The government inherited a successful NHS and in just two years have reduced it to a demoralised and destabilised service worried about the future. Health ministers seem to be in denial about the extent of care rationing and charging in the NHS. Simon Burns has said it is unacceptable to impose blanket bans for treatment on the basis of cost alone yet he and others have repeatedly refused Labour’s request for an investigation. But the government must now intervene before it’s too late.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is a Shadow Health Minister and Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

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