The government is reportedly intending to make primary care trusts pay for patients to receive private care if hospitals fail to meet its infamous 18-week referral to treatment target.

Under the plans, patients having to wait longer than 18 weeks after being referred by a GP for their treatment will automatically be entitled to receive free private care, and for those with cancer the same applies if they haven’t been seen by a hospital specialist within two weeks of referral, according to The Times newspaper.

Although patients can already choose from a menu of providers at the start of treatment - be it private or National Health Service-based - once they have embarked on their chosen pathway they must stick to it regardless of how long they have to wait to receive it. But the proposed changes are designed to enable patients to get treatment in a different hospital if their initial choice has failed to provide within the 18-week time frame, thus upping the onus on hospitals to ensure they are providing timely care and adding an extra element of competition into the mix.

NHS waiting lists have been a major political football during Labour’s terms in government and the success of the 18-week policy is widely regarded as one of its greatest achievements in healthcare, given that, back in the early 1990s, patients were often waiting more than six months for a first outpatient appointment and more than two years for an operation.

The government’s 18-week target was met ahead of schedule last year, and it is hoped that the proposed new laws will help to embed this achievement as well as promote further improvements, as trusts will reportedly be required to pull out all the stops to ensure patients are treated quickly. This is particularly important at a time when the National Health Service is facing its toughest financial challenge ever though budget freezes and increasing demand on its resources.

Turning up the pressure
But according to Tim Winn, Partner in the healthcare team at law firm Mills & Reeve, the proposals are basically saying to NHS providers “hit your referral-to-treatment targets or you will lose business,” and he warns the move is “ratcheting up the pressure that already exists with patient choice,” as “patients will use waiting times to assess where they want to be treated [and] now they will be able to change horses in mid-stream”.

The new legal rights surrounding waiting times – which have been simmering in the pot since the summer – will be announced in the Queen’s Speech November 18 as Labour steps up its battle plan before the looming general election next year, The Times reports.