Senior Lib Dem peer Shirley Willimas has said she can't support the government's NHS reforms, calling the scale of the reforms "too great" and leaving "too many questions unanswered".
Senior Lib Dem peer Shirley Williams has said she can’t support the government’s NHS reforms, calling the scale of the reforms “too great” and leaving “too many questions unanswered”. Writing in this morning’s Times (£), she questions the cost of the reorganisation, the accountability of the new GP consortiums, the role of the private sector and patient choice.
Baroness Williams says (£):
What is the cost? The Government must reduce public spending from 2011- 2015 by £80 billion. If it can’t, its strategy will have failed. The NHS accounts for a third of England’s revenue budget and 11 per cent of its capital budget. It faces relentlessly growing demand.
David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS and now of the National Commissioning Board, noted in 2009 that the NHS must find £15-£20 billion in efficiency savings in the next four years. But he himself believes that “to do so will require clear and effective management every step of the way”.
Key to this is a 40 per cent cut in management costs. Already hundreds of managers have left Primary Care Trusts at a cost of about £1 billion. The impact of this is not yet known, but GP commissioning consortiums are bound to look for good managers, some of whom will be hired from outside the NHS.
They are likely to cost more. Some 20 per cent of the savings will come from moving patients from specialised hospital care to treatment by GPs or nurses in the community.
The final 40 per cent will have to come from clinicians and hospitals, an estimated £2 billion a year. Such huge savings will almost certainly entail an element of rationing. Waiting lists for routine operations are lengthening, and in some cases they are being postponed or cancelled. As the National Audit Office observed: “Government reorganisations … frequently entail higher costs than anticipated”.
Accountability: What arrangements are there to hold GP consortiums accountable for quality of care? Primary care trusts (PCTs) were accountable to Strategic Health Authorities and, ultimately, to the Secretary of State. They were overseen by local authority committees. Meetings were held in public and the minutes made available.
The new consortiums, responsible for about £80 billion, are not obliged to meet in public. Local health-watch groups may scrutinise them but have no power to hold them accountable.
Suggestions for adding knowledgeable lay people, members of other medical professions such as clinicians or nurses and elected local representatives have come from many quarters, but it will be up to each consortium to decide for itself.
Accountability upwards will be to the Secretary of State via the NHS Commissioning Board, but the board has no powers of oversight.
The private sector: What are the Government’s intentions here? Private medical practices work closely with NHS colleagues and were encouraged by Labour to bid for contracts at a price determined by the NHS tariff. Competition for these contracts depended on the quality and effectiveness of service. There is a cap on the proportion of private beds in Foundation Trust hospitals, which varies according to earnings from private patients and is much higher in London. Last year the private sector treated 220,000 patients.
The Government is now preparing to remove the cap, renegotiate the tariff and require the National Commissioning Board to promote competition. This will open the door to competition on price, not just quality.
Many clinicians fear that the private sector will skim off profitable routine operations, leaving expensive, complicated treatment to the NHS.
The body that will license health providers is Monitor, which oversees foundation trusts. Its chairman, David Bennett, wants healthcare exposed to competition like gas and rail. British Gas raised energy prices by 7 per cent last year, while making £700 million in profits. Since rail privatisation, the UK had paid the highest fares in Europe. Should this inspire confidence?
Patient choice: How does the Secretary of State reconcile this with the need for large savings? Mr Lansley puts great emphasis on the involvement of patients in their own treatment. That’s good but achieving it in practice is hard. Articulate and self-confident people are likely to benefit, but elderly or busy patients will have little basis for their choices beyond rumour or GPs’ advice. Choice must be balanced against the realities of a publicly funded service.
Underlying the debate about health is another about values. For some of us, health care is a public service, strengthened by partnership and co-operation, the model in most Western European countries. For others, it is a market in which price determines quality, the US pattern.
A June 2010 study of 11 health systems by the US-based Commonwealth Fund said of the US system:
“Compared with … Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, the US system ranks last or next to last on five dimensions … quality, access, efficiency, equity and healthy lives.”
The NHS was the second least expensive per person after New Zealand, and came first on effective care, efficiency and cost-related access, and second on equity and in the overall ranking. Why we should dismember this remarkably successful public service for an untried and disruptive reorganisation amazes me. I remain unconvinced.
Her comments echo concerns she expressed in the run-up to the Liberal Democrat party conference in September, when she said:
“I’m profoundly worried about the white paper on health, we have a health system which is notably improved, the outcomes have come right up to the best European standards.”
And earlier this month, a number of health organisations expressed serious misgivings about the coalition’s NHS reforms, including the King’s Fund, NHS Alliance, NHS Confederation, Royal College of General Practitioners and The Nuffield Trust.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.