A report claims treatments are being delayed so patients leave waiting lists by going private or dying, as Channel 4 News hears the system is "a game".
Some Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) refuse to operate before 15 weeks in an attempt to save money, according to an independent agency that advises the Department of Health. The report by the Co-operation and Competition Panel (CCP) claimed this tactic was used after PCTs realised that if patients were made to wait "some will remove themselves from the list, or will no longer require treatment when it is finally offered", it said.
The maximum amount of time a person should be on a waiting list is 18 weeks, but the CCP was told by some PCTs they have also been imposing the minimum waiting times too. The report said that not all trusts impose minimum waiting times, however, and some provide care as soon as they can.
"We understand that patients will 'remove themselves from the waiting list' either by dying or by paying for their own treatment at private sector providers," the report by the Co-operation and Competition Panel (CCP) said.
Authors of the report said that although this was an attempt by PCTs to save money, if treatment is delayed, more complex and expensive care may be needed when it was finally offered.
Commissioners take very seriously their role to ensure that patient health is not put at risk waiting for the care they need PCT network
David Stout, director of the NHS Confederation's PCT network - an independent membership body which represents most of the PCTs in England, said the figures cause "unnecessary public anxiety and alarm".
"Commissioners take very seriously their role to ensure that patient health is not put at risk waiting for the care they need," he said.
"The CCP report rightly highlights that there are some areas of the country where financial pressures have led to an increase in waiting times as a result of demand growing faster than available funding. However, even in these areas, waiting times remain within the 18 week maximum.
"It is also important to understand that these are routine cases, rather than emergency cases."
We understand that patients will 'remove themselves from the waiting list' either by dying or by paying for their own treatment Report authors
Benjamin Cohen, Channel 4 News' technology correspondent has multiple sclerosis (MS) and said "the whole thing is a game".
He has to have lots of appointments to see different specialists to treat different symptoms to do with his condition and as a result has been on lots of waiting lists.
"From what I understand, many trusts have a system whereby people wait to get onto the waiting list," he said. "When my neurologist refers me to a different specialist, I often get a letter to say the waiting list is full so they hold my referral off until there is a space on the list."
In some cases, it took 18 months before he got a letter to say he was on the list and that his appointment would be in four weeks. "The whole thing is a game," he said.
Mr Stout said that if that was happening, it would be against the guidelines as the 18 weeks begins when the referral is made - not from when there is a space on the waiting list.
He said he could not comment on the specifics of a particular case, but said there were clear rules set out by the Department of Health.
The government said the report demonstrates a need for change in the NHS. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "Too many PCTs have been operating in a cynical environment where they can game the system - and in which political targets are used to delay treatment."
14 December 2010
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