Ambitious manifesto pledges mean that the new government is likely to be judged by its success in delivering an improved NHS to the public, while the chief executive of the UK’s largest private hospital group has argued that all three parties have avoided a real debate on future funding.
In the build-up to the general election – which was taking place as Health Insurance went to press – all three major political parties selected health policy as a major battleground. The Labour Party pledged to reduce waiting times for cancer tests, including results, to just one week by 2015. The Conservatives, by contrast, promised to scrap “politically-motivated” targets.
Although both the Labour and Conservative parties have pledged to involve the private sector in their plans – offering patients the opportunity to go to private providers who offer NHS services at NHS prices – Adrian Fawcett, chief executive of private hospital group BMI Healthcare, has criticised politicians for failing to go further towards a mixed economy.
“The private and independent sectors need a seat at the healthcare planning table rather than continuing to be a ‘fail-safe’ – stepping in to help only as and when needed,” he said. “The NHS could utilise the spare capacity in the private and independent sectors to the benefit of the patient and cost-effective healthcare delivery. Our manifesto recommendations include the ability for people to pay extra for services carried out in the private sector, rather than lose their NHS entitlement, and a call to offer tax relief for people who self-pay for treatment or who have private medical insurance on the grounds that incentivising those that can afford it to increasingly take personal responsibility for their own healthcare helps reduce the burden on the NHS.”
While both the Labour and Conservative parties have pledged to protect health spending, commentators are already speculating that during the course of the next parliament frontline services will be affected by the fall-out from the recession.
“Public spending cuts will undoubtedly mean cuts to the NHS budget as well, despite what any of the major parties say in the lead up to the election,” said Dr Peter Mills, independent healthcare consultant at Glasslyn Healthcare Solutions. “If NHS funding is reduced in real terms then it is likely that waiting times in certain areas will increase which could provide an opportunity for private medical insurers to offer products and services to bridge this gap.”
However, Paul Roberts of healthcare intermediary IHC Ltd, said he was not expecting an increase in demand for private solutions.
“Selling protection products will take a long time to recover and the belief that ‘it won’t happen to me’ will remain paramount,” he said. “The industry needs to find products that offer lower cost points of entry to attract new customers.”
A Health Insurance survey, conducted last month (see page opposite) found that only a third of readers (31.3%) believe that most people on NHS waiting lists could afford private medical insurance.