Alan "Butcher" Johnson: death on his
conscience? Blood on his hands?
The Sunday Times lead story this week was about Linda O'Boyle, a cancer victim who has just died. She was denied free National Health Service treatment in her final months because she had paid privately for a drug to try to prolong her life.
She is believed to have been the first patient to die after fighting for the right to top up NHS treatment with a privately purchased cancer medicine that the health service refused to provide. News of her death at the age of 64 emerged as six other patients launched legal action to trigger a test case that they hope would force the NHS to allow them to top up their care with private drugs. Three of the cases, involving women suffering from liver and bowel cancer, are expected to prompt a judicial review of the government's ban on "co-payment", as the buying of private treatment while under NHS care is called.
Some cancer drugs not yet available on the NHS can markedly increase the chance of survival. But Alan Johnson, the health secretary, claims that co-payment would create a two-tier NHS, with preferential treatment for patients who could afford the extra drugs. Last year he issued guidance to NHS trusts ordering them not to permit patients to pay for additional medicines.
After Linda O'Boyle developed bowel cancer and began having chemotherapy, doctors told her she should boost her chances of fighting the disease by adding another drug, cetuximab. It is not routinely funded by the NHS. But when she decided to use her savings to pay for it, Southend University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust withdrew her free treatment, including the chemotherapy drug she was receiving.
The trust said yesterday: "A patient can choose whether to continue with the treatment available under the NHS or opt to go privately for a different treatment regime. It is explained to the patient that they can either have their treatment under the NHS or privately, but not both in parallel." What the trust did not say, though they should have, was "If any patient refuses to lie down and die quietly, we'll stop treating them and kill them off a bit quicker. Serves the buggers right!"
Linda's 74-year-old husband, who worked as an NHS manager for 30 years himself, said "We were happy to pay for this drug, cetuximab, and to give the health service what it cost to buy it and deliver the treatment, but they said they couldn't do that. When she heard there was something that could extend her life, of course my wife jumped at it. Linda was taking lots of other drugs that she had previously been given on the NHS but we had to pay for all of them."
A group of nearly 1,000 NHS doctors, called Doctors for Reform, has raised £35,000 to fund a judicial review of the ban on co-payments.
Butcher Johnson's argument, that co-payments would create a two-tier system of health care, is complete b*ll*x. A two-tier system already exists - or perhaps the Butcher has never heard of Bupa? God, what am I saying? He's doubtless a fully paid-up member himself, isn't he? You don't think any government minister is going to trust himself to the NHS?
And the two existing elements of the system are already inextricably linked - the doctors and consultants in the local NHS hospital and in the Bupa or Nuffield hospital down the road are one and the same, your GP can refer you to a specialist either under the NHS or privately, but you'd end up seeing the same bloke. You can pay for an operation that takes place in an NHS hospital, and NHS hospitals have private wards with better food and a free telly - I know, 'cos Mrs.GOS has done it.
If that's not a two-tier system, what is? And it's difficult to argue that private patients are "jumping the queue", or putting NHS patients at a disadvantage, when the money those private patients have been feeding into the NHS all their lives is still in there - they've just elected not to use it themselves but to let someone else have the benefit. Probably a hospital administrator on £100,000 a year.
No, Butcher Johnson, what you're saying is something from the sinister underbelly of Old Labour, something born of envy and spite and good old-fashioned class-hatred: "Doesn't matter if you can afford to better yourself. If we can't have the best treatment medical science can provide, why should you? If you try, we'll make damn sure you stay down here and fester with the rest of us!"
So the NHS can, and does, deny treatment to people who are desperately sick and dying, who are a British citizens, and who have dutifully paid their contributions all their working lives. Just because the NHS doesn't like their politics, or because they aren't obedient enough, or because they have the temerity to think for themselves and believe they have a right to an opinion about their own treatment. That's the caring face of socialism in 21st Century Britain.
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