Page last updated at 06:55 GMT, Monday, 7 July 2008 07:55 UK

Debate call over NHS top-up care

Patient having chemotherapy
Cancer patients have been denied NHS treatment for topping up privately

There must be a thorough debate on whether to let patients top up NHS care with private treatment, the head of the British Medical Association has said.

BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said his gut reaction was that this went against the values of the NHS.

But Dr Meldrum denied he was against allowing people pay for extra drugs to supplement their NHS care.

Speaking ahead of a debate on the issue at the BMA conference in Edinburgh, he said other solutions should be sought.

Dr Meldrum was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as being against co-payments but he said the comments had been taken out of context.

'Huge sympathy'

He stressed his views were personal, saying: "My gut instinct is that this goes against the sort of NHS I believe in, which is free at the point of use, fair and equitable to all."

But he added he had "huge sympathy" for the plight of families who had resorted to trying to top up care.

And he said there were other ways of trying to address the issue, including speeding up the way the NHS decided which drugs should be used.

A body called the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) currently reviews treatments for their cost effectiveness for use in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but it has faced criticism for the time it has taken to make decisions.

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NHS trusts tend not to fund drugs until NICE has made a recommendation.

Currently, anyone who pays for any form of private treatment - even drugs unavailable on the NHS - can be barred from the normal package of NHS care.

The rule applies across the UK but last month the government announced it would review the policy for patients in England.

Scotland has already announced a review, although it is specifically on cancer drugs.

Health Minister Lord Darzi told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show the government would report back on the review in October.

He said: "It's very important that whatever we come up with does not erode one of the core principles of the NHS which is free at the point of need."

The issue has come to a head in recent months as a number of cancer patients have been banned from receiving NHS care after topping up their treatment privately.

The rules have resulted in some terminally-ill patients being forced to decide whether to pay for health care that would normally be free, or go without drugs that could help extend their lives.

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