Public sector union UNISON yesterday condemned the government’s extension of Patient Choice as a policy that will lead to the closure of good local hospitals.

The Department of Health announced yesterday that 32 more foundation hospitals and fifteen private treatment centres will be added to the list available for patients to choose from for treatment.

Patients will be expected to meet their own travel costs unless they qualify for jobseekers’ allowance or welfare benefits.

A UNISON spokeswoman told News Line: ‘What patients want is not more “choice” but good local hospitals that deliver quality services and where they don’t have to wait a long time.

‘We need standards brought up across the country rather than creating elite hospitals at the expense of existing local hospitals.

‘Patients don’t want to travel long distances to get better services that should be being provided locally.

‘We don’t want foundation hospitals sucking in patients and leading to the closure of good local hospitals and, consequently, staff cuts.’

Former Labour health secretary Frank Dobson MP accused the government of ‘rigging the market’.

He said foundation hospitals are ‘clearly having difficulty in drumming up trade and so now they are being given favoured treatment’.

James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association, said: ‘We would like to get back to the choice available before the Conservatives started their reforms in the 1990s, when a GP could refer to any hospital or specialist anywhere in the country.’

Michael Summers, chairman of the Patients Association, said: ‘Patients have told us that they appreciate having choice of local hospitals.

‘However, it also seems they are not all that interested in being able to go to hospitals anywhere in the country.

‘There are exceptions, but on the whole extending the choice does not mean a great deal to many.’

The government is aiming at placing 150,000 patients a year in foundation hospitals or private treatment centres.

Health Minister Andy Burnham yesterday officially launched the extended choice network nationally to include NHS Foundation Trusts and, over the next few months, ‘independent sector’ treatment centres.

Health secretary Hewitt plans to publish surgeons’ ‘success’ rates, to ‘help’ patients in their choice of hospital.

Minister Burnham also announced yesterday that Dr. Mayur Lakhani, chairman of Council, Royal College of GPs, along with David Pink, Chief Executive of the Long-term Medical Conditions Alliance, will co-chair an ‘independent reference group for patient choice drawn from a variety of stakeholder organisations’.

Its role will be to bring a wider perspective to policy development.

The Department of Health claimed: ‘With dozens more hospitals and clinics to choose from, patients will have even more control over when and where they can get their treatment.’

Stressing the government’s drive to break up the NHS, Burnham said that until now NHS staff ‘have been hampered by a centrally run health system that hasn’t always let them put their patient’s first.’