Pri­vate surgery for NHS pa­tients soars un­der Tories

The Guardian - - Front Page - Exclusive De­nis Campbell Health pol­icy edi­tor

The num­ber of NHS pa­tients hav­ing surgery in pri­vate hos­pi­tals has tre­bled since 2010, spark­ing ac­cu­sa­tions that for-profit com­pa­nies are cash­ing in on a ser­vice be­ing pri­va­tised by stealth.

NHS fig­ures ob­tained by the Guardian show that it paid for 214,967 peo­ple in Eng­land to have an op­er­a­tion in a pri­vate hospi­tal in 2009-10. But that had soared to 613,833 last year, mean­ing it has nearly tripled in nine years.

The dis­clo­sure will in­ten­sify the de­bate about the pri­vati­sa­tion of health­care, al­ready a key is­sue in the elec­tion cam­paign. Labour says Boris John­son will sell large parts of the NHS to US pri­vate health firms as part of a post-Brexit trade deal. The party also says that the NHS’s an­nual drug bill could soar from £18bn to £45bn a year if US phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal firms are given freer ac­cess to the Bri­tish mar­ket. The prime min­is­ter has dis­missed those claims.

The fig­ures come as NHS trusts are in­creas­ingly be­ing forced to send pa­tients to have pro­ce­dures in pri­vate hos­pi­tals be­cause they are too busy and un­der-staffed to do them them­selves.

The sharp rise in out­sourced surgery in re­cent years has co­in­cided with the wait­ing list for non-ur­gent op­er­a­tions bal­loon­ing to a to­tal of 4.6m – the largest num­ber seen since records be­gan in 2007.

Trusts are strik­ing deals with in­de­pen­dent providers to carry out surgery, in­clud­ing cataract re­movals and hip and knee re­place­ments, and also some non-sur­gi­cal treat­ments, in­clud­ing for can­cer. For ex­am­ple, in Fe­bru­ary and March, King’s Col­lege hospi­tal trust in Lon­don sent 216 pa­tients to BMI Health­care to ei­ther have surgery or un­dergo an en­doscopy to help cut its wait­ing list. It also paid for 10 pa­tients to un­dergo bariatric surgery at the Princess Grace pri­vate hospi­tal in cen­tral Lon­don.

In ad­di­tion, it has paid £1.3m to the com­pany 18 Week Sup­port to treat pa­tients with eye prob­lems whom it could not deal with fast enough it­self.

“A decade of cut­ting over 15,000 beds and fail­ures to re­cruit staff un­der the Tories is forc­ing more and more pa­tients out of the pub­lic NHS into poor qual­ity

pri­vate hos­pi­tals,” said Jonathan Ash­worth, the shadow health sec­re­tary.

The 613,833 NHS-funded pri­vate pro­ce­dures last year were un­der­taken at 296 pri­vate hos­pi­tals by 144 sep­a­rate providers. BMI Health­care treated the largest num­ber of pa­tients – 115,925 – at its hos­pi­tals. Spire hos­pi­tals per­formed 80,095 pro­ce­dures and Cir­cle Health did 41,435.

Dr Tony O’Sul­li­van, a re­tired pae­di­a­tri­cian and co-chair of the cam­paign group Keep Our NHS Pub­lic, said: “These are to­tally shock­ing fig­ures that pro­vide hard ev­i­dence that the NHS has been en­fee­bled af­ter close to a decade of Con­ser­va­tive govern­ment and been left des­per­ately short of staff and money.”

The huge rise in out­sourced op­er­a­tions is an em­bar­rass­ment for Matt Hancock, the health and so­cial care sec­re­tary, who told MPs in Jan­uary that “there is no pri­vati­sa­tion of the NHS on my watch”. Ash­worth said: “The fail­ing health sec­re­tary has al­lowed wait­ing lists to bal­loon with pa­tients left in pain and dis­tress. A bo­nanza for the pri­vate sec­tor is the con­se­quence, ex­pos­ing Mr Hancock’s fa­mous claim of ‘no pri­vati­sa­tion on his watch’ as ut­terly hol­low.”

The Guardian dis­closed in July that pri­vate firms were given a record £9.18bn of the NHS bud­get in 2018-19, up from £8.07bn in 2014-15.

In an­other ex­am­ple of out­sourc­ing, Northum­bria Health­care trust has agreed to send 120-150 peo­ple a year for treat­ment at the Ruther­ford Can­cer Cen­tre, a pri­vate fa­cil­ity.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion rep­re­sent­ing in­de­pen­dent providers of NHS care de­fended their role and claimed their in­volve­ment meant pa­tients were able to avoid spend­ing a long time wait­ing for the NHS to treat them.

“While there’s been a growth in the use of pri­vate pro­vi­sion in the NHS, this still equates to just 7% of the NHS bud­get, and the re­cent slow­down in work go­ing into the pri­vate sec­tor has co­in­cided with a pe­riod where NHS wait­ing lists have in­creased sub­stan­tially,” said David Hare, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the In­de­pen­dent Health­care Providers Net­work.

“The re­al­ity is that with­out pri­vate pro­vi­sion of NHS ser­vices, pa­tients would wait far longer for their care and have less choice, which is why the pub­lic re­peat­edly re­port be­ing re­laxed over who pro­vides their NHS care, pro­vid­ing it is high qual­ity and re­mains free at the point of use.”

John McDon­nell, the shadow chan­cel­lor, pledged last week that a Labour govern­ment would get rid of all pri­vati­sa­tion in the NHS by tak­ing con­tracts back in-house as they came to an end. “We be­lieve ac­tu­ally we shouldn’t be al­low­ing peo­ple to prof­i­teer from the NHS. The gen­eral pub­lic feel as though we shouldn’t be pour­ing money into the pock­ets of prof­i­teers,” he told the An­drew Marr show on BBC One.

PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID LEVENE/ THE GUARDIAN

Pri­vati­sa­tion of health­care is a bat­tle­ground in the elec­tion, with Labour say­ing the Tories would sell parts of the NHS to the US

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