Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has banned Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) from enforcing minimum waiting times on referrals and putting in place caps on operations that do not take account of the healthcare needs of individual patients.
By March 2012 at the latest, all PCTs will be expected to have removed these "unfair restrictions, which limit patient choice and prolong unnecessary suffering for patients," says the Department of Health. All decisions that could impact on patient choice must now be taken at PCT Board level and must be made public, it adds.
The move follows an investigation by the Co-operation and Competition Panel (CCP), which was asked by the Department and Monitor to undertake a review of the operation of Any Willing Provider for the provision of routine elective care in the NHS and to advise on any instances where PCTs were not acting in the best interests of patients or the taxpayer.
In its report, published in July, the PCC had reported that some patients were losing out as a result of restrictions placed by some commissioners on their choice of provider of NHS care, such as the imposition of minimum waiting times.
The Commission's report had pointed out that patients have a right to choose their hospital under the NHS Constitution and the Principles and Rules of Cooperation and Competition. However, its investigation had found that while some commissioners were successfully balancing the range of demands placed on them and still delivering patient choice, others were restricting such choice excessively.
Unless the significant variation between commissioners delivering choice was addressed, there was a serious risk that the benefits of patient choice, to both patients and taxpayers, would not be realised to its full potential, the Commission warned.
Announcing the ban this week, Mr Lansley said that while PCTs have to manage resources carefully, they must do so without restricting patient choice, and this was why he was taking "firm action" and "banning these unfair measures imposed on patients."
"This is just the beginning of a range of measures we hope to introduce to make the NHS truly patient-focused. I want a health service that works around patients - not the other way around,” he added.
The CCP's director, Catherine Davies, welcomed the Department's acceptance of the report's findings and its key recommendations that those PCTs which are currently imposing inappropriate constraints on elective activity should stop doing so, and that they should put improved commissioning procedures and transparency in place to ensure the benefits of patient choice are realised.
"Commissioners should now be clear that practices which excessively restrict patient choice are not acceptable and we expect to see commissioners change their approach where necessary," she said.