David Cameron says he wants to take the running of the NHS out of the hands of politicians and make health service workers more accountable.
Mr Cameron maintains the NHS will be his top priority if he becomes PM
The Conservative leader has called on Tony Blair to back his plans for an independent NHS, saying it should not be treated like a "political football".
He says a Tory government would ensure a rise in NHS spending, but argues that a "new direction" is needed.
Gordon Brown recently said he wanted more independence for the NHS.
But Mr Cameron says he and shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley first came up with their proposals first, in February.
Last week Mr Cameron told the Conservatives' annual conference the NHS was his top priority - deliberately echoing Tony Blair's focus on education ahead of the 1997 general election.
In a speech to the King's Fund think-tank earlier on Monday, Mr Cameron said he wanted to move away from "micromanagement" of healthcare towards "greater professional responsibility for those who work in the NHS".
The Tory leader says he plans to publish an NHS Independence Bill in the New Year to "take politicians out of the day to day running of the NHS".
He said he hoped the bill would command cross-party support, and if implemented by spring 2008, would "give the NHS the best possible 60th birthday present".
"So my message to the government is clear: the NHS matters too much to be treated like a political football," Mr Cameron told the King's Fund.
He said giving greater independence to NHS professionals would "not mean a blank cheque".
But he said it would "strengthen accountability because professionals in the NHS will be more clearly accountable for the things they're responsible for, and for raising standards".
He insisted that "instead of imposing change insensitively from above", the Tories want to work with doctors, nurses, ancillary staff and administrators to achieve "sustainable, bottom-up improvement".
Setting out how the new system would work, Andrew Lansley said the Tories wanted to create an NHS board, responsible for allocating resources, commissioning services and increasing standards of care.
There would be an economic regulator licensing providers, promoting competition and safeguarding financial propriety.
And patients would be giving a strong independent voice in "Healthwatch", which would be able to intervene through the regulator if services are failing.
The Tories are also publishing the interim findings of their policy group on the health service, which follows widespread consultation with healthcare professionals.
Mr Lansley told BBC News 24 Mr Cameron had put aside party differences earlier this year to back Tony Blair's education bill and he called on Labour to do the same with the Tories' NHS Independence bill.
"In the interests of the National Health Service, on this occasion, it is we who are taking the initiative and I hope that Mr Blair and Mr Brown, if they are realistic about giving the NHS the opportunity to succeed, they will join us and support our bill," he said.
Health Minister Rosie Winterton told BBC Radio 4's World at One it was "outrageous" for Mr Cameron to talk about "political meddling".
She said the Tories' claims were at odds with what she claimed were their plans for cuts.
'Eye off the ball'
Labour's Howard Stoate, a GP, told the programme he was concerned by the Tories' attempt to move on to what had been seen as Labour territory.
He said the government had taken its "eye off the ball" in terms of explaining to the public how much it had invested in the NHS.
"We're going through a difficult patch. There are some people who are fed up with the current government," he said.
"We have seen the biggest increase in public expenditure and we have to remind people of the facts."
Lib Dem health spokesman Steve Webb said the Conservatives risked creating another tier of bureaucracy.
"David Cameron seems to be asking the right questions, but coming up with the wrong answers," he said.
"Stopping political interference in the NHS is essential, but we shouldn't be handing power over to another unelected quango - independent of politicians, but accountable to no one."