Unions slam “disastrous” NHS shake-up plans

Prime Minister David Cameron vigorously defended radical government plans to overhaul the NHS on Monday as a necessary modernisation after health unions said the plans, being unveiled this week, were “potentially disastrous.”

The Health and Social Care Bill, to be published on Wednesday, will pave the way for the biggest shake-up of the health service in England for 60 years, experts say.

The reforms have been criticised by health leaders for the speed and scale of the changes they will bring.

Writing to The Times on Monday, the heads of six health groups, including the doctors’ grouping the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, expressed their “extreme concerns” about the aim of generating more competition within the service.

Some health professionals fear proposals to inject price competition between the NHS and private firms risk undermining patient care by putting cost before quality.

“There is clear evidence that price competition in healthcare is damaging,” the letter said.

But speaking to BBC radio, Cameron said reform was needed because throwing money at the health service had not necessarily delivered value. He said the NHS’s performance had fallen heavily compared with other comparable European systems, even though spending was close to the European average.

“It is not a spending problem, but we are a long way from having the best outcomes in Europe … in terms of how long you survive from cancer, what your chances of surviving are if you have a heart attack. (They) are worse than many countries in Europe,” he said.

Cameron said major changes were needed as costs “inexorably go up” as new drugs come on stream and the population gets older.

“I don’t think there is an option of just quietly standing still … and putting a bit more money into the NHS,” he added.

“I think we do need to make some more fundamental changes to try and make sure that, as well as a good functioning NHS, we have a healthier nation that puts less demands on to the NHS.”

“I think if we just carried on as we are … I think we would face a really big crunch in two or three years’ time,” he said.

Under the reform plans, family doctors are being given much more responsibility for health spending. The government wants groups of GPs to replace primary care trusts and take control of around 80 percent of the 100 billion pound annual NHS budget.

Cameron said the reforms would be introduced steadily, contrary to reports they were being rushed through. GPs would not be asked to take on new responsibilities for two years.