The NHS is under fire for forcing patients who need surgery to wait at least three months before they can have an operation in order to save money.
NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in Lincolnshire have provoked sustained criticism after deciding to introduce minimum waiting times for non-urgent surgery including cataract operations and joint replacements.
They have adopted the policy as a result of the NHS-wide cash squeeze and also because they insist that some patients’ condition clears up while they wait.
A Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Lamb, a former health minister, said the move was “a shameful indictment of the under-funding of the NHS” that would prove unfair and divisive. “It undermines the core principles of the NHS: that everyone should get compassionate treatment, as early as possible, when they need it. Those who can afford it will go private to skip the wait, while others will be left waiting in pain and discomfort. This is simply impossible to justify.”
Trafford CCG in greater Manchester has confirmed that it is also considering bringing in a similar policy, according to the Health Service Journal (HSJ), which first reported on the plans.
NHS England oversees all 209 CCGs which between them spend over £60bn of the NHS’s £125bn annual budget. It appeared to back minimum waits, despite the controversy they have aroused.
A spokesman for NHS England said that with health budgets so squeezed that NHS bodies face “difficult choices” about what they spend their money on. However, there are doubts about whether it is legal for any CCG to bring in minimum waits for care, given that patients are supposed to be guaranteed in the NHS constitution that they will be treated as soon as possible.
Lincolnshire West CCG told HSJ that it had “a responsibility to ensure public money is spent effectively and efficiently”. It added that “there is evidence that some conditions do get better over time and that, in some cases, surgery may be unnecessary” though did not specify to which conditions it was referring.
The commonest non-urgent operations hospitals perform include removal of cataracts, replacement of a worn-out hip or knee and the repair of a hernia.
The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) said making patients wait at least 13 weeks for treatment was “arbitrary” and “ethically wrong” because patients would suffer.
Sue Hill, the college’s vice-president, said: “We strongly urge all these CCGs to reconsider this decision. Patients in Trafford currently wait an average of 7.2 weeks for any type of treatment. If this policy were to go ahead average waiting times in Trafford would double and it is difficult to see how these targets coud be achieved.”
While the RCS appreciates the severe financial pressures facing CCGs, “introducing an arbitrary minimum waiting time for surgery is unlikely to save money in the long-term and is ethically wrong. Delaying surgery can mean a patient’s condition worsens, and can make surgery more difficult and less successful,” added Hill.
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CCG was the first to bring in minimum waits for non-urgent surgery, also for 12 weeks. But it recently abandoned the policy two months after it was brought in.
Minimum long waits for treatment were banned when the coalition was in office through a ruling in 2011 by the now defunct Cooperation and Competition Panel. However, it appears that that applied only to primary care trusts, which CCGs replaced, and not to CCGs, which hold the NHS budget across England.
Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, urged the government to prevent NHS bodies from using the tactic. “I’m demanding Jeremy Hunt intervenes, enforces the NHS constitution and bans these minimum waiting times. Secondly, in the budget Theresa May must provide the NHS with the money it needs to end this postcode lottery of care that has developed under the Tories.”
An NHS England spokesperson said: “CCGs face difficult choices about what can be afforded within the funds parliament has made available, recognising the priority being accorded to emergency care, mental health, cancer and GP services. Last month 1.3 million patients started consultant-led elective treatment and the vast majority of patients wait less than 18 weeks.”