Patients will decide how they spend NHS money

By Chris Smyth
The Times, April 16, 2018

Hundreds of thousands of people will receive personal allowances of NHS cash to organise their own care as ministers seek to “put power back into the hands of patients”.

Far more people with mental health problems, dementia and physical and learning disabilities will have the right to select and pay for treatments they want. The money will be paid directly to them and can be spent on whatever that they think best helps to manage their condition, as long as a doctor agrees.

Veterans leaving the army and wheelchair users have also been promised the “personal health budgets” after complaints that care provided to these groups by the NHS is not good enough. Some such budgets run to tens of thousands of pounds.

The reforms will allow recipients to employ relatives or neighbours as carers, buy specific pieces of equipment, enrol in exercise classes or hire a personal assistant. The policy has been controversial in the past because such budgets have been spent on holidays, horse-riding lessons and aromatherapy.

At present 23,000 people have personal budgets in the NHS through a little-known initiative called NHS Continuing Healthcare, designed for those who need both social care and nursing. Now ministers want an “exponential” expansion of the right to have personal health budgets, taking the number up to 350,000.

Giving patients the personal responsibility for their healthcare on such a scale is compared by some to Margaret Thatcher’s decision to allow tenants to buy their council homes. The reform is also significant for combining money from the health and social care budgets, a wider goal for health reformers.

Caroline Dinenage, the care minister, said: “If you have complex needs our current health and social care system can be confusing, so it’s right people should be involved in the important decisions about how their care is delivered. These changes will put the power back into the hands of patients and their families.”

Some on the left fear that personal budgets will lead to privatisation of the NHS, as money is diverted from existing services based on consumer choice. Right-wing critics fear that the money could be spent frivolously.

The budgets have the backing of Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, and Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS. Mr Hunt is preparing to lay out plans later this year to reform social care.

Ms Dinenage insisted that personal budgets for patients would “not only improve quality of life and the care they receive, they will offer good value for money for the taxpayer and reduce pressure on emergency care by joining up health and social care services at a local level.”

Ministers see the policy as a way to let individuals tailor their own care, circumventing cumbersome attempts to make fragmented health services work more closely together. They point to evidence that people’s health improves if they can spend NHS money on what matters to them, while cutting costs by 17 per cent on average by stopping expenditure on unhelpful treatment.

Supporters have defended purchases of computer equipment or football tickets, saying that such items can be crucial in helping people with complex conditions to thrive, with all spending signed off by doctors. Money for personal assistants and iPads can be justified if doctors think that this will help people to organise treatment or live independently, they say. The budgets cannot be spent on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, debt repayment and illegal activities.

Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust think tank, said that for people with suitable long-term conditions that were too complex for existing services there was good evidence that personal budgets worked. “It appears that giving people flexibility and choice over the care they require produces better outcomes for them [and does] produce some relatively modest savings,” he said. He added that concerns about “what happens if I take a personal budget and spend the whole lot on a world cruise” had so far turned out to be groundless. “There’s a danger of being closed-minded and saying ‘that’s not a real health need’ and not taking the wider view,” he said. “There will be examples of football season tickets, which get people upset, but I don’t think it’s systemic. Most of the money goes on direct care and is often justifiable.” Uptake of personal health budgets had been hampered by resistance from doctors, saying: “There is a slight suspicion of handing over control.”

However, Caroline Abrahams, of Age UK, said: “Older people in declining health with social care needs generally tell us they are not very interested in getting involved in organising the services they receive, they just want them to be effective and joined up, and delivered by kind and skilful professionals.”

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said that “the NHS has been run in the interests of staff, not patients, so it’s very encouraging to see personal health budgets being expanded”, but cautioned: “The government can’t allow patients . . . to spend taxpayers’ money on ineffective treatments.”…

The British National Health Service has established “personal health budgets” – personal allowances of NHS cash to “put power back into the hands of patients.” Their conservative government now intends to greatly expand the use of these accounts. Some fear that this represents an effort to further privatize the NHS – moving cash into the hands of patients while reducing funds for the already underfunded NHS.

These personal budgets have in common with our health savings accounts the concept that somehow patients will be better health care shoppers if they are using cash, but the improvement in the targeting of spending is largely negligible and only at the margin. Patients do not have the ability to judge the best value in most health care purchasing, not because they are not intelligent but because they are relatively uninformed (and, no, price lists do not provide patients the information that they would need).

NHS is a prepaid health care program that does not require payments associated with care received, and thus financial barriers to access are removed. That does mean that the government needs to be sure that adequate funding of the program is maintained and that services are upgraded (or downgraded) as appropriate. Services that are truly appropriate for health care should be funded by the program and not by relatively unrestricted cash accounts that can be diverted to worthless care or to pleasures that stretch the definition of therapeutic, especially when that cash is either a disbursement of government funds or represents a tax expenditure as with our HSAs.

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