Monday, 28 June 2010

Ring fencing the NHS

The British Medical Association, the doctors' trade union, has complained that 'haphazard' cuts are harming the National Health Service: Cuts This announcement comes on the eve of their conference, but also when Conservative backbenchers are starting to complain about 'ring fencing' the NHS in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

If one does that, and also tries to keep cuts in defence and education down to ten per cent, that means that some departments could have to cut expenditure by a third in real terms which is very dificult to achieve without, for example, drastically cutting environmental protection services.

Some cuts could hit the NHS directly, for example cutting back on social care for the elderly could make it more difficult to get them out of hospital, leading to bed blocking. Warwickshire County Council is already proposing increases of fees for some services delivered to the home of 1,000 per cent, admittedly from a very low and hopelessly uneconomic base level.

The NHS does face the problems of an ageing population, an expanding medical technology frontier that drives up costs and rising patient expectations. Howver, here are a few suggestions:

1. Mrs Thatcher famously said 'we have dealt with the opticians' (or words to that effect, I don't have the transcript in front of me). I went my first eye test last week and it was free. Should that be the case for someone who is not poor? I was also interested to read on the back of the form that I was given that I could get a voucher towards my spectacles if I was a prisoner on leave.

2. Should prescriptions for free for everyone who is elderly? Or should the better off be at least asked to pay for a season ticket of £100 or so a year?

3. Anyone who was talked to GPs infornally will know that patients make considerable differential use of the service regardless of their state of health. Should charging be introduced, again with exemptions? Of course, that would really hit at the idea of a NHS free at the point of use and need and would probably be too politically controversial.

The Conservative pledge on the NHS was politically expedient. But does it make for good policy? Vince Cable didn't think it made economic and political sense and the former Labour health minister doesn't think it makes sense now.

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