Health secretary Alex Neil has announced that ministers must approve significant spending by health boards on the private sector. Health boards often send patients to facilities operated by private firms, such as Bupa, if they cannot be treated within waiting time targets on the NHS.
This amounted to about £28 million last year and is expected to fall by a further £3m – from a total health budget of about £10 billion.
Opposition parties last night accused the Scottish Government of “staggering hypocrisy” and putting “spin and headlines” ahead of patient care.
The SNP administration has sought to place the health service at the centre of the independence campaign, warning that only a Yes vote on 18 September will “save the NHS”.
Patient groups last night backed the announcement, but said there must be a “lead-in period” to ensure the NHS can adapt to the change without waiting lists soaring.
Neil has issued new guidance to all health boards which states they must submit plans for their use of the independent health sector, and all significant spending must now be agreed by ministers.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw warned: “Had it not been for the independent healthcare sector, waiting lists and patient care across Scotland would have been in a pretty disastrous state on a number of occasions.
“Our NHS has been lucky to be able to call upon these resources. If the SNP wants to stop using private healthcare, it will have to sort out the NHS first. No-one holds out much hope of that happening.”
But Neil is now adamant that healthcare spending should only be undertaken in “exceptional circumstances”.
He said: “I recognise that there are times where it is not possible for the patient to be treated by the NHS within a reasonable timescale, but these arrangements should only be used in the margins and should not be the norm.
“That is why I have asked health boards to clearly set out in their plans for future years how they plan to use the private sector, and report back to me on how they will reduce their spending in this area.”
Fewer than 0.5 per cent of NHS patients now have their treatment undertaken in the private sector.
He added: “This should be seen in stark contrast to the competition, privatisation and complicated reforms being introduced in England that I believe threaten the very foundations on which the NHS is built.”
Both doctors and nursing leaders have indicated recently that both professions are struggling to cope with the pressure of spiralling NHS workloads.
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Jim Hume said the SNP government has “slashed nursing numbers” when they are most needed.
“At a time when health boards are struggling to meet waiting times targets, the SNP are now calling on them to cut private spend,” he added.
“Our health service does not need any more spin or grand pledges from a government obsessed with headlines. The health secretary should clear up the SNP’s staggering hypocrisy on private healthcare by giving our hospitals the support they need.”
Former GP and MSP Jean Turner, chief executive of the Scottish Patients Association, yesterday backed the move to cut private spending.
She said that a lot of NHS money has been used this way to “shorten waiting times.”
She added: “If you have been dependent on the private sector to get a service, then suddenly cut this, there needs to be a sensible approach – a lead in – when the NHS can change to a better staff ratio and less management.”