Thursday, March 18, 1999 Published at 16:40 GMT
Government 'climbdown' over private care
Bupa says there should be one system for a mixed economy of care
Conservatives have accused the government of "a massive climbdown" over regulation of the private health care industry.
According to media reports, Health Secretary Frank Dobson is considering legislation to establish an independent body to monitor Britain's 300 private hospitals.
He is also said to be proposing to make hospitals publish performance league tables and their annual audits in the same way NHS hospitals do.
The reports came just before the government lost a House of Lords vote on a Conservative amendment to the NHS Bill.
The amendment proposes that the private sector come under the Commission for Health Improvement.
This is being set up in April and will monitor clinical standards in the NHS.
Shadow health secretary Ann Widdecombe said: "Mr Dobson has consistently railed against any form of regulation for the private health sector.
"It is an apparently astonishing conversion by him."
She added that the "climbdown" was "the direct result of Conservative pressure" and called for a full official statement on the government's plans.
Press reports say legislation to regulate the private sector is likely to be unveiled in the Queen's Speech in the autumn and is expected to be linked to moves to increase inspection of private nursing and residential homes.
However, independent healthcare organisations say the reports are likely to be spin since the Commons health select committee is still looking into the regulation of the private health care sector and will not report until the summer.
A spokeswoman for Bupa said the reports were likely to be linked to the House of Lords vote, which the government lost by 113 to 161.
That would mean it would come under the Commission for Health Improvement (CHI) and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), which will set standards.
It is unclear whether Mr Dobson's plans include CHI and NICE.
"It makes sense for us to have the same standards as the NHS," said the Bupa spokeswoman.
"We have treated 25,000 NHS patients and are currently undertaking initiatives to reduce NHS waiting lists. We also help the NHS out in a crisis."
"It makes sense to have one system and will improve standards for patients."
Private hospitals and homes currently have to be inspected at least twice a year by district health authorities under the 1984 Homes and Hospitals Act.
However, most of the legislation relates to the running of the premises, rather than clinical standards and private clinics are not covered.
Bupa says poor standards in some clinics reflect badly on the whole private health care sector.
Equal playing field
The Independent Healthcare Association (IHA), the main body representing private health organisations, has been campaigning for "an equal playing field" for 10 years.
It says the proposals as leaked from the government do not appear to go far enough.
It wants the private sector to come under CHI and NICE and also wants patients to have recourse to the health service ombudsman if they have a complaint.
Currently, there is no independent body to consider complaints.
The IHA is shortly publishing its own code of practice to improve clinical standards, but it says this is not enough.
And it denies claims that the move to one system of health regulation will help the private sector to expand.
Spokesman Tim Evans said: "The reality is that we have a mixed economy of care. This is not an ideological issue, but a pragmatic one."
"It is a win win situation not a zero sum game. Everyone will be better off.
"Thousands of patients are transferred from the NHS to the independent sector and many people in private care homes are funded by local authorities."