Unhealthy profits

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The sickness of the economy has done little to dent the healthy profits of private hospitals.

There was a drop of 30,000 patients with private medical insurance seeking treatment in the private sector between 2007 and 2009, and a fall of 45,000 patients paying directly. Yet private hospitals raked in £3.76 billion in 2009 - an increase of 7.5 percent.

This increase in profits for the private healthcare sector comes from ordinary taxpayers. As part of the hiving off of NHS work, patients on waiting lists are now able to opt for treatment in private hospitals, providing the cost is the same as that provided by the NHS. In 2007 55,900 patients opted for private treatment in this way. This rose to 212,000 in 2009. NHS patients in 2009 made up 22 percent of private hospital treatments, an increase from the 6.3 percent seen in 2007.

This is due to a process started by New Labour in an effort to bring down waiting lists but also to avoid further direct investment in the NHS. The ideological conviction of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was that private is always more efficient than public, and that profits are the only means by which problems in healthcare can be healed.

The coalition government has stepped up this marketisation several more notches. New plans mean that hospitals - public and private - will jostle for business from GPs, who will be encouraged to look to the balance sheet rather than medical notes as the prime factor in choosing where to send patients for treatment.

The supposed "ring-fencing" of NHS budgets means little if this flow of money into private hands continues. Much like the consequences of cuts and fees in higher education, a competitive environment is created in healthcare where the most financially fit will thrive and those that put patients before profits are not resuscitated.