Page last updated at 14:55 GMT, Thursday, 17 December 2009

Is the NHS fast-track for veterans actually happening?

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent

Andy Allen
There have been a thousand people injured in Afghanistan

Two years ago the government pledged that all veterans would have the right to fast-track NHS treatment if their conditions were service-related, but has that promise been kept?

New research by the Liberal Democrat party says most health trusts in England are failing to monitor the number of patients being treated under the scheme, increasing fears that ex-servicemen and women are not being given the priority care they were promised.

A Royal British Legion survey says up to 80% of GPs are unaware veterans are entitled to take priority.

Once a fit young soldier, Paul McClintock, 33, now has to rely on a carer to help prepare his meals. He suffered a back injury during Army training, and in the years since, he says he has often had to wait months for scans and treatment.

'No proof'

When he heard the government's promise in January 2008 that all veterans would receive priority NHS care, he was delighted. But not for long. He says his GP knew nothing about it, nor the hospitals at which he has been treated.

"I've gone through three or four different NHS trusts in the county, and all of them say the same - they don't know I'm entitled to it, they've got no proof off the government that it is policy.

"But I think that if you get told you're going to be looked after, why don't they honour their word, and honour the military covenant?"

The whole promise seems to me to have been completely meaningless.
Nick Harvey

The government promised to honour the military covenant - the nation's duty of care to those who serve in its armed forces - when two years ago, it extended the right to priority healthcare to all the UK's five million veterans, as well as promising a raft of other measures.

But it is far from clear that veterans who need NHS care are being given the priority they were promised. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Liberal Democrats asked all acute and primary NHS trusts in England how many veterans had actually had priority treatment.

Of the 170 NHS Acute Trusts in England, 94 of those who replied said they had no records on priority treatment or did not collect that information. Five said they were unaware of the scheme.

It was a similar story with Primary Care Trusts where of the 146 questioned, 84 replied with 67 saying they did not collect that information. Two trusts were unaware of the scheme and one said they were still awaiting guidance on the scheme from the Ministry of Defence.

Raising awareness

A survey by the Royal British Legion also revealed that 81% of GPs knew nothing or little about veterans' right to priority care.

Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, said no effort had gone into fulfilling the promise.

"The awareness is non-existent and GPs trusts, hospitals take no notice of it and don't appear to be doing anything about it in practice, and the whole promise seems to me to have been completely meaningless," he said.

The NHS trust in charge of former soldier Paul McClintock's treatment at University Hospital North Durham says its staff should know about veterans' priority, and that they would be disappointed if they did not.

What we need to do is constantly try to remind both GPs and veterans that they do have a right to priority NHS treatment
Mike O'Brien

Meanwhile, the government says it is again trying to raise awareness about veterans' right to fast-track treatment, according to the health minister Mike O'Brien.

"There are new ways in which we are looking at flagging up to GPs who the veterans are to ensure they're aware of them and where priority is necessary, that veterans are able to get that," he says.

"The issue is that we have more than four million veterans and also a large number of GPs. Making sure they're all aware of their rights is difficult - so what we need to do is constantly try to remind both GPs and veterans that they do have a right to priority NHS treatment."

In Afghanistan, 1,000 servicemen and women have now been injured since the war began.

That will mean far more needs in the future from those who have served their country, even when they leave the armed forces. Many will need care back on the home front - as well as on the frontlines.

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