Conservative leader Michael Howard should stop hiding behind "human shields" and debate his health policy openly, the health secretary has said.
The government says patients will not face hidden waits for treatment
John Reid said the Tories planned to let people pay to "jump the queue".
The challenge came as he and Tony Blair set out how Labour would deliver a key election pledge of a maximum 18-week wait for hospital treatment.
Mr Howard responded by calling for a TV debate with Mr Blair. The Lib Dems said Labour had failed patients.
Mr Reid's challenge follows the bitter row which erupted last week after Michael Howard raised the case of pensioner Margaret Dixon - who says she had her shoulder replacement operation cancelled seven times.
Mr Howard answered calls for a debate saying: "Bring it on", and repeated his call for a TV debate with the prime minister.
The health secretary and Mr Blair highlighted differences between their plans and Tory promises - which include using NHS cash to pay half the cost of an operation for a patient who opts to go private.
The Conservatives rejected Labour's claims that these proposals were unfair stressing that "no-one" would be charged for NHS treatment.
But Mr Reid said the Tory leader was wrong if he thought people had forgotten about the damage to the NHS caused by previous Tory governments.
"These were the years not of cancelled operations, but of cancelled lives. The wait was so long people died before they got to the operating table."
The choice was between the pledges Labour had made and a Conservative government which would subsidise the private health sector, the prime minister said.
Mr Blair has already unveiled the party's key health pledge - "Your family treated better and faster".
This would mean no-one waiting more than 18 weeks for hospital treatment from the GP's door to the operating theatre and average waits of nine weeks.
Mr Blair also pledged to give patients an unlimited choice of which hospital treats them by 2008, and to carry out thousands of operations in the private sector at no cost to the patient.
Mr Reid said Labour had already improved the NHS through large-scale investment, but conceded this needed to continue.
The case of Margaret Dixon has made the NHS a key battleground
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said instead of addressing the issues, Labour was trying to blame the previous Tory governments.
This would not wash with the electorate he said, adding that NHS output had increased more in the early 1990s than it did in the early years of this decade.
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow criticised the government's plans saying its instinct was to set a new target every time something went wrong.
"Over the past eight years Labour has failed to tackle the hidden waiting lists for tests and scans, leaving many patients languishing for over a year waiting to get a diagnosis," he said.