Thousands of patients getting private healthcare for free

Under "patient choice", a policy launched in 2006 to allow people to choose from a range of hospitals, patients can also have non-emergency procedures in any private hospital that can carry out the treatment for the same cost as the NHS. 

A total of 147 private hospitals are now signed up to the scheme and carrying out treatments such as knee and hip operations. While non-paying patients are not entitled to any medication or implants not available on the NHS, they benefit from better accommodation, more staff attention and other perks of private facilities. 

The number of people taking up the offer has risen from little more than 300 per month in the summer of 2007 to more than 3,600 in September. This means the NHS spent £7.6million on giving the patients treatment in private hospitals, rather than their own.

However, Jacky Davis, a senior member of the British Medical Association and the co-chair of the NHS Consultants' Association, said the policy meant the NHS was losing money overall.

She told the BBC: "This is money that is being lost from the NHS. That can compromise services and patients should be told that by going private in this way they are potentially putting care they may need in the future under pressure." 

Opponents have long argued that the policy would see private hospitals "cream off" the easiest cases, depriving NHS hospitals of their everyday work and forcing them to focus on more expensive procedures. 

However, the Government insists the policy is the best way to drive up standards in all hospitals through competition for patients.

A Department of Health spokesman told the BBC: "Choice gives providers the incentive to tailor services to the needs and preferences of patients which, in turn, will lead to better outcomes and the reduction of health inequalities."

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