Page last updated at 06:34 GMT, Tuesday, 20 April 2010 07:34 UK

Why health matters, home or away

Hywel Griffith
By Hywel Griffith
BBC Wales health correspondent


Will health still be an election issue even though it is devolved to Wales?

Here's a test: walk into any café, pub, chapel or waiting room in Wales, and see if you can find someone who doesn't have an opinion on the National Health Service.

Whether it's waiting times, cancer care, hospital infections or finding a dentist, most people have something to say about how the NHS is run.

But is this election their time to say it?

Devolution has moved control over what happens on the wards of our hospitals away from Westminster and put it in the hands of the assembly government.

But will people still be voting on health issues in the general election?

A quick straw poll on the streets of Carmarthen answers my question.

Armed with a long list covering everything from immigration to pensions the vast majority of shoppers I spoke to still picked out health as one of their top three election issues.

"My husband is disabled and so I'm very concerned about hospitals and health" says one woman.

"I'm retired medically," a man explains, "so it's an important issue close to my heart."

"It's not just the NHS," argues one young voter, "but investment in lifestyle is important."

When I try to do my bit in explaining that it is AMs in Cardiff Bay rather than MPs in Westminster who shape the running of the Welsh NHS, most people nod - look a bit confused - and all say they'll be voting on health issues anyway.

Hywel Griffith questions voters in Carmarthen
Hywel Griffith takes the temperature on the NHS in Carmarthen

Of course, the political parties all know this - and when candidates are asked on the doorstep what they'll do to protect hospitals or improve GP access, very few are likely to answer that it's not for them to interfere.

So what have the main political parties got to offer on health in this election?

The Liberal Democrats say their MPs would ensure the assembly has the powers it needs to make changes to the NHS, and ensure Wales is allocated its fair share of funding.

They say they want a more efficient health service in Wales, and would immediately ask a panel of health finance experts to investigate the "misspent billions" in the Welsh NHS.

Power and money are also key themes in Plaid Cymru's list of objectives. They want further law making powers for the assembly and increased funding for Wales to be used in part on improving hospitals.

Plaid also want to bring in minimum pricing on alcohol - strictly speaking that's not a health issue, but the impact of binge drinking is regularly felt in Accident and Emergency units up and down the country.

The Conservatives say they want to scrap universal free prescriptions - one of the landmark health policies in Wales - limiting them to pensioners, children and people on benefits.

There's going to be a much bigger gap between what we really want the NHS to provide - the optimum services - and what government is going to be able to put into the NHS?
Kate Watkins, Welsh NHS Confederation,

While these are changes only an assembly government could make - they clearly feel there is benefit in pushing for change, explaining the extra income from charges could go to hospice care and stroke services.

Labour has also made a pledge which could only be implemented by an assembly government, promising a key worker for every cancer patient in Wales, to support them through the treatment process.

They say that through the Labour-led assembly government they can improve access to GP surgeries, by changing opening times and online services.

Every pledge

Of course every pledge needs to be paid for - and controlling public spending is definitely an issue in this election.

According to Kate Watkins, acting director of the Welsh NHS Confederation, the financial situation over the next few years is already expected to be tight, following years of record spending in health.

"I think what's changing now," she explains, "is that the rates of increase we are going to have are very much lower - but the costs of providing good health service continues to be quite high.

"So there's going to be a much bigger gap between what we really want the NHS to provide - the optimum services - and what government is going to be able to put into the NHS?"

Because it is the UK government that decides how much money is handed down to Wales to spend, that means whoever is in charge at Numbers 10 and 11 Downing St do ultimately have a say in the future of the Welsh NHS.

So the people on the streets of Carmarthen were right after all - health, in some shape or form, is an issue for this election - now all you need to do is decide who gets your vote.

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