Wonderful news of a real breakthrough in public service reform, which is of course, therefore, hardly reported at all in today's newspapers. Only the brilliant Nicholas Timmins in the Financial Times understands the importance of 100,000 patients exercising their right to go private for health care and have the NHS pick up the tab (The Daily Telegraph has a follow-up, but seems to get the numbers wrong by a factor of 10).
Timmins's report is worth quoting at length:
A growing number of patients are choosing private hospitals for their NHS treatment, latest figures from the Department of Health show, as the government’s much-vaunted “choice” agenda finally takes off.
Almost 100,000 individual patients have now chosen the private sector for diagnostics and waiting-list operations, paid for by the NHS, since the option was first offered.
The great bulk have done so during the past year.
The rise in NHS patients has thrown something of a lifeline to private hospitals, which have seen the number of patients willing to pay for treatment out of their own pocket – as opposed to via insurance – fall in the recession. There are also indications that the private health insurance market is stagnant or falling for the same reason.
Since April last year, NHS patients have been able to choose any private hospital willing to take them at NHS prices, and almost all private hospitals are registered to participate in the scheme.
Over 18 months, and after a very slow start, the numbers doing so have quadrupled from 2,100 a month in April 2008 to 8,400 this August. The business is now worth £200m a year to the private sector, and rising, according to Bob Ricketts, director of system management at the Department of Health.
These numbers are on top of NHS patients being treated in independent sector treatment centres, and those treated where primary care trusts or NHS hospitals buy operations from the private sector in order to hit NHS waiting time promises.
This is of course a welcome vindication of the NHS reforms driven by Alan Milburn, John Hutton, John Reid, Alan Johnson and others. If only Blair had not wasted much of his first term by letting the NHS stagnate, we might have seen figures like these four or five years ago, and choice, having achieved critical mass, would be driving the further reforms urgently needed now.