More NHS hospitals turning to private patients

As NHS funding cuts bite, are NHS hospitals muddying the waters between NHS and private patients?

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Caroline Molloy
17 July 2013

NHS hospitals are increasingly turning to private patients to fill their funding gaps, a new investigation by the British Medical Journal has found.

One in 6 hospitals have introduced new payment options this year. A new initiative is the option of ‘self-funded’ patients. Services offered in this way include chemotherapy, radiology as well as cataract and varicose vein surgery. 

The ‘self-funding’ option is being promoted to patients who cannot access the NHS due to tightened funding and longer waiting lists, according to the BMJ’s investigation. 

For example Homerton Hospital NHS Trust advertises its ‘self-funded’ treatments to patients who “do not meet the eligibility criteria for NHS funded treatment or do not want to wait for NHS funding to become available”.

Unlike traditional private patients, ‘self-funded’ patients pay at cost, rather than the higher rates traditionally charged, and are treated in the same facilities as NHS patients, raising concerns that those who cannot pay may have to wait longer for treatment as a result. 

Responding to the BMJ report, Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, told OurNHS:

“This was what we predicted and were accused of scare mongering. NHS charges will follow very soon - initially for services that patients might feel ok paying for like physiotherapy, counselling, or chiropody - but very soon for care such as MRI scans and hernia repairs. We will have two queues, as with cheap airlines - one for those that pay and others will be left on the tarmac.”

Trusts identified in the report included the Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust in Essex which now allows patients to privately fund a range of diagnostic and cancer treatments at NHS rates. Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust advertises varicose vein treatment on the NHS MyChoices website, saying:

“There are some treatments provided in the past that may no longer be accessible through local NHS funding… they have developed the MyChoice service. This allows patients to pay (self-fund) to have these procedures at the hospital at the standard NHS price.”

Meanwhile Epsom & St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust - one of the first to introduce ‘self-funding’ for IVF patients - has now expanded this to include certain liver and eye treatments.

Last year’s Health & Social Care Act increased the amount of income that Foundation Trusts could earn from private patient income to 49%, up from the previous cap of 2%.

Meanwhile private providers like Care UK are marketing “self pay” options at their NHS-funded treatment centres, which currently see over 70,000 NHS patients a year. Their leaflet says:

“If you require treatment, but cannot access it through the NHS, you may choose to opt for Self-Pay. This way, you’ll benefit from prompt medical care at a time that’s right for you—and with Care UK it may cost less than you might imagine.”

A Foundation Trust Network spokeswoman said that the Network expected the use of self-funding options to grow but said that Trusts had ‘systems in place’ to ensure that self-funded patients didn’t jump the queue at the expense of NHS patients.

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