By Jane Dreaper
Health correspondent, BBC News
Lawyers representing patients say the delays are unacceptable
The body which handles unresolved complaints about NHS treatment in England is missing its own target, a BBC investigation has revealed.
The Healthcare Commission aims to deal with 85% of complaints within six months.
But 55% of the current cases have been with its staff for longer than that.
The commission says it has received far more complaints than it expected, but lawyers and patients' charities say the delays are unacceptable.
Val Johns is sitting in the conservatory of her home in Kent, and leafing through a thick pile of correspondence.
Her husband Robert, who she still describes as her best friend, died from lung cancer four years ago.
She was unhappy with the medical care he received and after feeling she could not get the answers she needed from local NHS bosses in Kent, Mrs Johns took her complaint to the Healthcare Commission.
That was two years ago - she is still waiting to get their report.
"I just can't move on until I get these answers," said Mrs Johns. "You keep hoping every day you're going to get an answer and it just never comes.
"The first letter I ever had from the Healthcare Commission was mid-July 2004 - and to today's date, it's still going on."
'Timescale was unachievable
Matters do seem to be moving since the BBC began looking at her case - Mrs Johns has now been told to expect a draft report in a few weeks' time.
But she is upset she has had to wait and the Healthcare Commission has admitted her case is an "extreme" example of a wider problem.
When the commission took on a new role of reviewing NHS complaints that could not be resolved locally two years ago, it was hailed as adding a new element of independence to the system.
The commission set a target to complete all cases within six months, but it soon became clear that timescale was unachievable.
In April, the body revised its targets. Now it aims to clear 85% of cases in six months, and 95% within a year.
But figures obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act show that 2,875 of the current workload - that is 55% - have been with the Healthcare Commission for more than six months.
And of those, nearly 900 complaints have spent more than a year at this second stage of review.
"Clearly it's unacceptable for it to take up to and over a year to reach conclusion of request for an independent review of a complaint," said Peter Walsh, who runs Action Against Medical Accidents, a charity which promotes patient safety.
"The Healthcare Commission reports are robust and independent - but patients need an assurance that these matters will be dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner."
The commission had initially expected to get 5,000 complaints a year - but the figure has turned out to be much higher at 8,000.
Staff feel that more should be done by the NHS at a local level to solve these problems before they get to the stage of needing independent scrutiny.
In the meantime, the commission is trying to tackle the delays.
"It was a surprise that the cases have been arriving in such high numbers," said Marcia Fry, head of operational development at the commission.
"We're sending back nearly a third of them, where we feel not enough investigation has been done at a local level.
"We've had to scale up our operation - we've brought in more people and refined our processes so we can spend time on the more complicated cases.
"We certainly admit it's not ideal - and we're sorry for people who are caught in the system.
"But we're getting better - more cases are now being resolved than are coming in each month, so we're making progress."
However Liberal Democrat health spokesman Steve Webb said: "People who make a complaint to the Healthcare Commission have the right to expect a prompt resolution.
"This is a government-created body that is supposed to deal with difficult complaints from worried members of the public, it needs to be properly resourced so that it has the tools to do the job."