Are the politicians and health planners very stupid or clever in a devious and corrupt way?

13/05/2011

 

For about two years I have been waking most mornings about an hour earlier than I need to with the thought, ‘How can they be so stupid?’ ‘They’ being the Wankers at the Top (WATTs) at the Department of Health (always anonymous) and their political masters. My particular reason for thinking this thought (2 years ago) was that we were being expected to implement a policy that meant self-destruction for us as a GP practice and the undermining of the quality of the service we provide, all in the name of patient ‘choice’. We solved our particular problem by simply refusing to implement this policy any further, quite openly, pointing out to the PCT the inherent flaw in the design of the policy. Then the focus of my concern became a far worse policy which takes the first policy and magnifies it 100 times: the policy of allowing people to register with the GP practice of their choice anywhere in England. Now perhaps the lay person can be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a good idea: choice has got to be better than limited choice. But for anyone who has worked as a GP for long would see that this was quite unworkable and quite mad. Hence my waking in the morning: ‘How can they be so stupid?’

In an attempt to resist this madness I started this blog, and have been laboriously emailing MPs, journalists, think tanks and anyone else I can think of to alert them to the stupidity of this idea. Everyone else has been caught up with other aspects of the Andrew Lansley’s health ‘reforms’, I have been (unhappily) focused on this one issue because it is the one that presents itself to me on almost a daily basis in everyday work.

Sunday 8 May I woke at about 5:45am; as per usual the thought appeared: ‘How can they be so stupid?’ Sometimes I am able to switch this thought off by concentrating on my breath and thinking of the sea, and I get back to sleep. Sunday morning, however, a plausible explanation came to me as to what the WATTs are up to, what the ‘direction of travel’ is in their minds. And I knew I was not going to get back. So I got up and wrote this post.

*

A few weeks ago I learned about an about to be published book called The Plot Against the NHS. I read the transcript of a lecture by one of the authors which introduced the book.

I ordered the book. One week ago, while on holiday, I finished reading the book. Chilling stuff, and every citizen (and even politicians) ought to read a copy, book clubs should be formed to discuss it. But the authors did not mention this issue of registering with the GP of your choice: how did this particular policy fit into The Plot? I am trying to contact the authors to ask them.

Yesterday I spent some time at the library looking at material related to this blog: I was writing a detailed analysis of an email which the Department of Health had sent me in response to my email to the Health Ministers about 5 months ago. I re-read portions of the Department of Health’s response to the so-called consultation Choose Your GP Practice. My mind began to turn to jelly. I stopped for lunch. I went back to library, packed up my stuff, and went home. We were having people for supper. I spent the remaining time typing some excerpts from The Plot Against the NHS (to include on this blog). Then I stopped.

The human brain/mind is a mysterious and wonderful thing. One example is the way it works on stuff overnight: I go to bed feeling a bit confused or jumbled about something, and often wake the next morning with clarity and a sense of perspective. So overnight my brain/mind worked on the stuff I had looked the day before and presented me with a provisional answer this morning to the question: ‘How can they be so stupid?’

The answer is this: if they were trying to improve general practice as we know it, as it functions when it is working well, then they are quite stupid. But if they have in mind quite a different model, but one they cannot be open about because then the majority of the population would pillory them, then you would have to say they are clever enough, much like the brains behind the banking crisis (the Credit Default Swaps, CDOs, subprime mortgages) and government lobbying that made it all possible were ‘clever’. Then it makes quite a lot of sense, even if it is chilling.

So in a nutshell what my mind presented me on Sunday morning was this: taking into account the thesis presented in The Plot Against the NHS (in essence the privatisation of health care provision in England, essentially on the United States model, carried out by a number of people at the Department of Health, health think tanks, and government–all covertly over the past 10 years or so), the reason the abolishment of practice boundaries is necessary is that it then opens up primary care to large multinationals to bid for and win contracts to provide general practice services the same way that McDonalds provides hamburgers. Let me explain: let us say that Virgin want to provide general practice services. At present they have to bid for individual practices when they become vacant. In addition, these practices serve a local community, within a specified limited boundary (there are perfectly good reasons for this, practice boundaries serve a real purpose, they are not ‘anachronistic’ or outmoded or old fashioned as the Government and Department of Health say). But this is quite limiting if you are thinking of a quite different model. The model might be this: ‘Virgin Health’, a ‘willing provider’, sets up a number of primary care centres around the country (much like Virgin Active has their ‘Health Clubs’, aka gyms), at locations they feel would best suit their business model. Because you are not constrained by practice areas, anyone living inEngland can join any ‘Virgin Health Centre’ inEngland. Indeed, the ‘Virgin Health’ model might mean they have an integrated IT system so your medical record is accessible to any ‘Virgin Health’ healthcare professional at any centre inEngland. So if you are in Swindon on business, just drop into theSwindon ‘Virgin Health Club’ at lunchtime and get your blood pressure checked, and why not step into the adjoining gym while you are at it?

This model would be quite attractive to the mobile youngish person, and might provide a reasonable service for some self-limiting conditions, but it would not do what good quality British general practice does. It would not look after people who have significant health problems, and it would not look after people when they actually get sick and cannot travel to the Health Club for assessment. Not only would it not do what quality British general practice does, it would also be far more expensive. But it would of course make a lot of money for some entrepreneurs.

This, I fear, might be, the ‘direction of travel’.


The Plot Against the NHS–some excerpts

08/05/2011

 

[Here are a few excerpts from Colin Leys & Stewart Player, The Plot Against the NHS, Merlin Press; read Colin Leys’ pre-publication lecture     I would strongly advise anyone interested in the future of health planning and provision in England to get a hold of this book, and to read it. And send a copy to your MP immediately.]

 

So in spite of its great popularity Britain’s most famous postwar social achievement was unravelled through a series of step-by-step ‘reforms’, each creating the basis for the next one, and always presented as mere improvements to the NHS as a public service. They were billed as measures to reduce waiting times, to offer more ‘choice’, to achieve ‘world class’ standards, to make the NHS more ‘patient-centred’—anything but the real underlying aim of the key strategists involved, to turn health care back into a commodity and a source of profit.

Each of the so-called reforms involved persistent, behind-the-scenes lobbying and fixing by a network of insiders—inside the Department of Health, above all, but also by a wider network, closely linked to the Department: corporate executives, management consultants, ministers’ ‘special advisers’, academics with free market sympathies and a taste for power, doctors with entrepreneurial ambitions—and the House of Commons Health Committee, packed with just enough compliant back-benchers and deliberately insulated from advice from expert critics of the market agenda. Not to mention a large and growing corporate lobby.

Each ‘reform’ needed its own quantum of dissimulation and occasionally downright lies. The culture of the Department of Health was radically transformed. In place of old-fashioned ideas of accountability and fidelity to facts the priority shifted to misrepresentation and spin. This was accelerated by the fact that from the late 1990s onwards more and more private sector personnel were active inside the Department, often in leading roles.

(Pages 5-6)

Unfortunately the marketizers continued to advocate market models of care even when experiments showed that market-based imports were not efficient at all—as with UnitedHealth’s ‘Evercare’ programme, for example. Evercare, which the huge American HMO UnitedHealth was paid a large sum to test in four regions ofEngland, was supposed to reduce emergency hospital admissions for elderly patients by 50%. But when it was evaluated it turned out to be unlikely to cut admissions by more than one per cent. The marketizers had evidently not reckoned with the fact thatEngland’s system of primary care was already accomplishing what Evercare does in theUS, where there is no free primary care. The main lesson the Department of Health seemed to draw from this experience was not to evaluate such experiments.   (Page 8)

By 2010 marketization clearly entailed not just the possibility but the longer-run probability of privatization. Yet the fact remains that all the evidence shows that privatization make health care more costly—and worse. The evidence from theUSconfirms what economic theory says, that markets will not produce good health care for all, as the NHS is pledged to do.

A Treasury document published in 2003 clearly outline the reasons why this is so: price signals don’t work in relation to health care; the consumer lacks the necessary knowledge, creating a risk of overtreatment; there is a potential abuse of monopoly power; it is hare to write and enforce contracts for medical treatment; and ‘it is difficult to let failing hospitals go bust—individuals are entitled to expect continuous, high-quality health care wherever they are’.

Why was all this ignored? If the strategists in the Department of Health thought they had contrary evidence or superior theory they should have come out openly and said so. But they were never called on to defend their ideas, precisely because they proceeded so covertly.

A 2010 survey of 20,000 patients in eleven industrialised countries for the US Commonwealth Fund found that the NHS was almost the least costly healthcare system of them all, and at the same time gave one of the best levels of access to care. Other countries not only spent more per head but also charged patients directly, reducing equality of access. OnlySwitzerlandreported faster access to care, butSwitzerlandalso spent some 35% more per head than theUK. OnlyNew Zealandspent less per head, but one in seven New Zealanders said they skipped hospital visits because of cost. To ignore all this evidence and embrace the idea of replacing one of the most cost-efficient health systems in the world, as well as one of the fairest, with one modelled on the most expensive and unequal system (the American), sets a new standard for ideologically-driven (and interest driven) policy-making.

But the NHS has not only worked well, providing high-quality, equal care for everyone, free of charge, at low cost: it is also the historic achievement of millions of people—those who fought to establish it, those who have spent their lives working for it, and everyone who has paid their taxes to build it up over the more than sixty years since it was created. Its founding principles of comprehensiveness and equal access for all have been core values of modern British society. Working to marketize it, and finally privatizing it, without any democratic mandate—without even explaining that aim to parliament of the public, is as close as it gets to being not just unscrupulous, but actually unconstitutional. The question is whether the English people—Scotland,Wales, andNorthern Irelandhaving escaped the plotters’ reach—will accept having this precious part of our heritage filched from under our noses.

(Pages 9-11)


Excellent Debunking of Government Lies by Ben Goldacre

16/04/2011

 

Courtesy of a Tweet I saw this morning, I have just read a piece by Ben Goldacre on his Bad Science blog. It concerns a government leaflet Working Together for a Stronger NHS, published on the Department of Health’s website (on the home page!). (You can get all the links on the Bad Science blog, or the article published by The Guardian.)

I wish Ben would apply his skills to a debunking of The Department‘s document Your choice of GP Practice published a year ago. I plan on doing this but have limited time. 

Quite shameful stuff. I am having to add a new category to the posts on this blog: Government Bullshit.

Oh, I almost forgot: to understand why they are using all these distortions and corrupting our language, see The Plot Against the NHS, and buy the book, just published.