Essex GPs tell patients to consider going private

Cash-strapped trusts try to balance the books

Two NHS ribbons being held apart after they have been cut. NHS Efficiency Savings. On black background

GPs in Essex have been told to encourage patients to go private, in an attempt to save NHS cash.

The mid-Essex clinical commissioning group (CCG) says it has boosted referrals to private healthcare by 6% since doctors were instructed to raise the subject during appointments.

And the Basildon and Brentwood CCG is set to follow suit, having sent out posters promoting private healthcare to be displayed in surgeries. It has also written to GPs, telling them to discuss going private with patients during consultations.

The CCG says it's been forced into the move to try and balance the books - it's one of the most cash-strapped health organisations in the country.

And it insists to the doctors' magazine Pulse that it's not expressing a view on whether people should have private health cover or not.

The policy, a spokesman says, is a "gentle reminder to patients to inform their GP of their private health insurance carries potential benefits for both the patient and the local health economy during this time of financial constraint".

However, there are fears that this could represent the thin end of the wedge, with Dr Maureen Baker, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, telling the Daily Mail that patients shouldn't feel pressured into going private.

"Priority must given to patient safety, not cost-saving initiatives, and we do not think this is an effective and viable way of keeping our patients safe now and in the long term," she says.

"Free healthcare at the point of need for anyone who needs it is the principle that the NHS was built on."

Health trusts are getting increasingly desperate in their attempts to cut costs, with York recently announcing plans to make obese patients wait a year before routine surgery. Others have floated the idea of charging for GP appointments.

And the free-to-all principle took a knock in July, when the Department of Health's commercial director, Pat Mills, commented that if things didn't change, "frankly in eight or nine years we're not going to have a 'free at the point of use' health service."

While the government distanced itself from the comment, any move to encourage patients to go private is bound to raise concern.

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