Helen Evans, who runs Nurses for Reform, a campaigning organisation dedicated to free-market options for healthcare in the UK, got to meet Conservative Party leader David Cameron a couple of weeks ago. The Daily Mirror [here, here and here] and the Daily Telegraph found out about the meeting and offered their own take on it.
Broadly, I agree that the proposals are in the right direction, although I have concerns about some of the tactics suggested and their formulation, which I deal with later. The bit that was not previously familiar to me was the idea that a barrier to entry should be at least lowered, by amending local planning rules to make it easier to open a new healthcare facility. I’m told the Conservative Party already favours this for schools, so the extension to clinics should not be difficult.
Having read the briefing document presented to the Leader of the Opposition, I disagree with one element of the strategy being proposed, specifically this passage: “the [National Health Service] NHS should be renamed the National Health SYSTEM and that under its auspices patients should benefit from a universal right to independent hospital care and treatment.”
A “universal right” is something that a government could be justified in declaring war to defend, like “freedom from slavery” or freedom from the use of confessions extracted under torture in criminal trials. It could certainly be a pretext for new taxes, a new bureaucracy, more regulations, and the restriction of other “non-universal” rights. Sadly, this call for declaring that privately-provided healthcare is a right could become the very instrument for imposing regulations (such as US Medicare-style price controls, or French-style government control on where doctors can practise [link in French]) that violate patient and physician freedom. To give a specific example: could a private clinic be fined for not providing 24-hour accident and emergency access? I would expect a government agency to do just that. Meanwhile, of course, government facilities which operate “in the public interest” would be excused.
A second concern comes in a later paragraph: “health censorship must be outlawed and patients must be empowered with greater access to information.” Outlawed? Must be empowered? By what agency, regulation, funded by what taxes or levies, with what powers of inspection and control?
These may seem like quibbles, but the law of intended consequences suggests that the wording of reforms can be as important as their spirit. Consider the US Constitution’s First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Does it say that Congress cannot give money to the Food and Drug Administration to hunt down anyone making claims about the alleged benefits to cancer patients of drinking grapefruit juice? No it does not. It means it, I think, but can I prove it to the US Supreme Court? Probably not.
It might be more boring to do, but the best way to remove censorship would be to revoke the clauses of those laws and regulations that allow it. As for “empowerment,” if this comes from the government it will mean a Department of Truth in Advertising demand for a quarterly report from all private providers as to how they inform the public, with fines for not reaching a wide enough audience.
On the positive side, Nurses for Reform finds that the ownership by a government department of most of the UK’s hospitals is a potential conflict of interest. There is the temptation to hide problems, to restrict information about alternative (often newer) treatments, the cozy relationship between the government employees in the NHS and those of the Department of Health who are supposed to watch them.
Dr Evans is therefore absolutely right to suggest the immediate transfer of ownership of NHS hospitals out of “public ownership,” and she is also correct that the “Secretary of State for Health must no longer have any say over when or where hospitals are built, opened or closed.”
On the issue of advertising, or freedom to communicate with the public in general, the major benefit would be that people could get an idea of which were the better brands (either cheapest, or best quality, or best balance between the two). If we think of how Aldi and Lidl can co-exist with ASDA, Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose and independent grocers, we can see how variety of branding can lead to beneficial competition: new treatments, more options and probably less queues.
Personally, I see no point whatsoever in delaying the reform of NHS funding: it merely prolongs unnecessary suffering and provides more opportunities for opponents of change to mobilise, like Gorbachev’s “perestroika” versus the liquidation of the soviet system. Having little expectation of any progress under a new Conservative Party government this coming year, it would be a pleasant surprise if Dr Evans’ proposals came to fruition. But at least no one can now claim that the case was not made.
[UPDATE: corrected link for Daily Telegraph article]