British PM gives ground on health service reform

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Prime Minister David Cameron bowed to criticism Tuesday of his plans to overhaul Britain's state-run National Health Service, amending the proposals while insisting that reform is necessary for its future.

Addressing NHS staff in London, Cameron said ministers had "learned a lot" from a two-month-long consultation launched in response to outrage from health professionals, the opposition and even members of his own coalition government.

However, he said modernisation was the only way to prepare the NHS for the future challenges of an ageing population and rising treatment costs.

"Changing the NHS today is the only way to protect the NHS for tomorrow," Cameron said.

Last week, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley warned the NHS faces a £20 billion-a-year ($32.8 billion, 22.4 billion euro) funding gap over the next four years without major reform.

The government wants to take away control for managing budgets and commissioning services from local boards and hand it to family doctors known as GPs, and to give the private sector a greater role in running health services.

Acknowledging concerns that the handover of control would be too much too soon, Cameron said it would not be rushed and that hospital doctors and nurses would now work alongside GPs in commissioning to ensure continuity of care.

On the issue of private sector involvement and competition, which has sparked particular concern, including from Cameron's Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, the prime minister also sought to reassure.

"We will not be selling off the NHS, we will not be moving towards an insurance scheme, we will not introduce an American-style private system," Cameron insisted.

"In this country, we have this most wonderful, precious institution and idea. That whenever you're ill, however rich you are, you can walk into a hospital or surgery and get treated for free. No questions asked. No cash asked.

"I will never put that at risk."

Cameron repeated his promise to increase real-term spending on the NHS each year and also vowed to keep down hospital waiting times, adding: "Reform is necessary but I am absolutely determined we get it right."

The government temporarily suspended the legislative process of bringing in the changes to allow for the consultation, and Cameron said those in charge of the so-called "listening exercise" would report their findings next week.

Clegg's concerns make NHS reform a test for the year-old coalition, but it is also a major political issue for Cameron and his Conservative party.

His promise to protect the NHS, bolstered by his experience of its care of his disabled son Ivan, who died aged six in 2009, was a key feature of his efforts to rebrand the Tories and played an important role in his election campaign.

© 2011 AFP

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