Ministers hope the centres will boost NHS capacity
Foreign health companies could be running new NHS surgery centres before the end of the year.
The Department of Health says it has issued "invitations to negotiate" to 11 firms interested in running new diagnostic treatment centres (DTCs).
These centres, which specialise in carrying out non-urgent operations, are a key part of government plans to cut NHS waiting times.
Private sector companies from Britain, America and Europe have all expressed an interest in running at least one centre.
So far, the government has established 16 DTCs across England. Of these, 15 are run by the NHS and one is run by private health provider BUPA.
A further 30 centres are in the pipeline, with eight of these due to open in July. Ministers are confident the remainder can be open by the end of this year.
The government hopes the centres will provide an extra 250,000 operations a year by 2005, helping to cut waiting lists and leading to savings elsewhere in the NHS.
It will focus on operations like hip or knee replacement or the removal of cataracts, which are among the most commonly performed surgery in NHS hospitals.
Patients referred to one of the centres will be able to choose the date and time of their initial appointment - usually within six weeks of referral - and arrange any necessary treatment at a time which suits them.
They will stay just long enough to recover from their surgery - often a matter of hours.
Prime Minister Tony Blair held a meeting with those interested in setting up the centres on Tuesday.
He said the government was committed to "opening up the whole of the NHS supply system".
He added: "We are absolutely determined to make these changes and make them for the long term of the health service."
His comments follow last week's battle with Labour backbenchers over plans to free top-rated trusts.
Health Secretary Alan Milburn reiterated his commitment to reforming the NHS. He said the DTCs would help to cut waits for NHS patients.
"The new DTCs are about giving NHS patients a fast track to treatment. They will expand NHS capacity and cut waiting times for operations in all parts of the country."
Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox said: "It is clear from the message given by the prime minister and the health secretary that the latest re-announcement is part of their continuing battle with the chancellor.
"The truth of the matter is that whereas the government only talk about improvements, only the Conservatives have the policies which will bring about the scale of reform needed to give the British people the health we deserve."
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Dr Evan Harris said:
"The limiting factor is not just the buildings, it is the lack of staff. Simply creating more employers does not create more employees."
He added: "Until the NHS gets enough doctors, nurses and other key staff, we will not see good enough access or choice for patients."