NHS pays up to 60pc higher prices to cut waiting lists

Private hospitals are once again being paid well above the standard National Health Service price in a drive to get waiting times down that has proved only partially successful.

Just months after the Department of Health cut back on a programme of independent sector centres to treat NHS patients at close to NHS prices – claiming that the NHS had sufficient capacity itself – private hospital providers say the service is once again “spot purchasing” significant numbers of operations at the last minute to get waiting times down.

Such last-minute purchases cost appreciably more than the standard NHS price, as the private hospitals are less able to plan and schedule their work.

One senior NHS manager said: “I know of examples where the NHS has recently paid the private sector 140 per cent, and even 160 per cent, of the NHS price to try to hit the waiting time target.”

The practice of spot purchasing had largely disappeared after the first independent treatment centres came in and the NHS introduced more structured contracts with the private sector.

The disclosure of its reemergence came as the DoH claimed to have hit a milestone in its drive to ensure that no one has to wait more than 18 weeks for treatment by the year end.

By the end of March, 85 per cent of patients who require admission were meant to have started treatment within 18 weeks, while 90 per cent of outpatients had started treatment within that period.

The health department said that a “milestone” had been achieved nationally. But closer examination shows that while some hospitals are reaching the 18-week target for almost all patients – pushing the average up – others are still way short of the March measure.

In London, fewer than 70 per cent of orthopaedic and neurology admissions were treated within 18 weeks, for example. In the south-east, fewer than 71 per cent of orthopaedic patients were operated on on time, and only just over 75 per cent in the south-west.

The east Midlands narrowly missed the milestone for cardiothoracic surgery, and the West Midlands missed it for orthopaedics, oral surgery and neurology.

However, David Worskett, director of the NHS Partners Network, which represents private providers, said some of the improvement had been due to a significant rise in spot purchasing in some parts of the country.

“It would have been better to bring more independent sector activity into the system,” he said, “because it is cheaper to have an agreed volume than to go in for last-minute purchases which are inevitably more expensive because the providers cannot plan.”


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