Friday, March 04, 2005

An unhealthy interest

The Tories must be celebrating - they've finally found something with which to attack that great Labour strength, the National Health Service. The Independent has an interesting article about the genesis of the story, which does suggest that Mrs Dixon is being used as a political pawn, despite her protests to the contrary.

Remember, that the NHS treats a million people every couple of days, so there will always be cases where the service isn't up to the mark. That doesn't mean that it isn't important to Mrs Dixon and her family and it doesn't mean that things couldn't be better. However this has happened, this case by itself does not prove that the investment has failed.

In the past year, waiting lists have dropped by 12% and over the past eight to ten years, cancer death rates have dropped 12%, while deaths from heart problems have dropped by 25%. Even as late as 2001, around a quarter of a million people were waiting more than six months for their operation. That's now down to under 70,000. Last year, there were 48 people - not even enough to fill a bus - across the whole of England who were waiting more than nine months for an operation.

An interesting measure of performance is the popularity of private healthcare. People choose the private option for speed, not quality. Now, we have some doctors bemoaning the lack of private patients, Nuffield now only do contract work for the NHS and other providers are closing hospitals.

We have more nurses, more doctors and more support staff. Yet, despite the bleating of the Tories, the NHS isn't overloaded with evil bureaucrats and administrators - every business needs people to administer payroll, purchasing and do all the nuts and bolts work that allows doctors and nurses to heal the sick. The US healthcare system employs a far higher percentage of administrators and managers than does the NHS.

Massive amounts of money have been injected into the NHS, not the drip feed that barely sustained life during the 1980s and 90s. This infusion is set to continue for the next three years and the results will get better still. Eighteen month waiting lists from when you saw the specialist weren't uncommon when our Tory colleagues were in office, sitting comfortably on private healthcare plans. The aim under Labour is to reduce the waiting list to eighteen weeks - from the day you first see your GP to the day the surgeon wields the scalpel.

The Tories offer us the option of taking money out of the public system and giving it to the private suppliers. Under their proposals, if you go private, the NHS will pick up half the tab for you. You may still have to find more than £5,000 to pay your share, so I doubt that this will attract many more than the 11% of the UK population who currently have any form of private healthcare. This is a cynical tax-break - a bribe for the top 10% financed by the rest of us, as the money is extracted from our health service. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, the Tories did oppose the creation of the NHS sixty years ago and have voted against the extra money that this government have pumped into your service.

Is it perfect? No.

Is there more to do? Yes.

You can't trust the Tories to do it.

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