Restore the free NHS! Halt privatisation & kick out the profiteers!

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THE House of Commons Select Committee on Health published a report yesterday that set out to legitimise charging for healthcare within the National Health Service (NHS), with Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs backing the Labour government’s privatisation plans.

There is a wave of anger sweeping through the working class and middle class over the cuts and privatisation of the NHS. We have seen thousands take to the streets in local areas to defend their hospitals.

The Trades Union Congress’s health unions (UNISON, Amicus, TGWU, GMB) and organisations of health professionals (BMA, RCN, RCM) also met last week to launch a ‘trade union campaign to save the NHS’.

In this situation the MPs on the Health Select Committee criticise the most blatant effects of privatisation and cuts in the NHS, but agree with imposing charges in the Health Service.

The report said that patient charges were a ‘complete mess’ with the cost of prescriptions, dentistry and eye tests rocketing, with no consistent criteria for the application of charges.

In 1979, prescriptions charges were 20p, whereas today they are £6.65. They are only free after a means test.

In dentistry, patients have been forced into private care, paying out £1.3m on private treatments a year and £500,000 to be treated on the NHS. Patients are also paying more than a third of the £284m cost of NHS eye care.

Alongside this, as a result of privatisation and NHS hospital trusts operating as businesses, private companies, or the trusts themselves, make up to £2,000 a year on car parking spaces, raising £78m.

Telephone calls to patients are charged at 49p a minute and patients’ television can cost £3.50 a day.

These charges are all part of the ‘business plans’ of the PFI speculators who own NHS hospitals, or the NHS hospital trusts themselves.

After all this, anyone expecting the Select Committee MPs to call for the abolition of these outrageous charges will be disappointed. The opposite is the case.

Labour Chairman of the Committee, Kevin Barron MP, says: ‘The system of NHS charges need to change, but first we need to know how the charges interact with health.’ He does not want to scrap NHS charges, he wants to make them systematic!

While calling for parking charges to be reduced and something be done about exorbitant telephone charges, Barron and his committee actually want more charges. They propose charges to patients who do not turn up for GP appointments, opening the door for payment for all appointments.

The Select Committee report says that ‘in the future, the NHS may not be able to pay for every possible medical treatment . . . some treatments or procedures may have to be charged for’.

What the Select Committee wants is a ‘consistent set of principles’ for charging for NHS care, with only ‘core services’ remaining free, the imposition of charges for other procedures and some treatments that will only be provided at private, market rates.

This will be music to the ears of Blair, who is always on the look-out for proposals that will line the pockets of his big business cronies.

Working people do not want more charges, they want the scrapping of all NHS charges – prescription charges, payments for dental treatments, the cost of opticians and charges imposed by hospitals.

This can only be achieved through a universal publicly-funded, publicly-provided NHS, free at the point of use, equally accessible to everyone. It means kicking out the private corporations and contractors, nationalising all PFI NHS hospitals, and running the NHS as a service and not as a private business.

Above all, it means that the ‘trade union campaign to save the NHS’ must do more than hold meetings with Blair and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who reject the demands of patients and health workers.

This Labour government is forging ahead with the complete privatisation and destruction of the NHS.

So workers must demand that their trade unions mobilise their full industrial and political strength in a general strike to bring down the Blair government and replace it with a workers’ government that will maintain the NHS and restore it to being a free health service for all.