Clegg Vows to Protect NHS from Privatization

Britain’s deputy prime minister promised not to let the profit motive undermine his country’s public health care system.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promised not to let the “profit motive drive a coach and horses through the NHS” after members of his own party voted to reject government reforms this weekend.

The Liberal Democrat leader said that the ruling coalition’s health reform would improve accountability and transparency in care without privatizing it. Party activists were angered however when the Conservatives pushed for an overhaul of Britain’s public health system which was not part of the coalition agreement.

Two months ago, Prime Minister David Cameron said that the country could not delay health reform and he urged critics who alleged that his plans amounted to privatization to “grow up.”

The coalition’s reforms would allow consortiums of doctors to take over management of the National Health Service (NHS) from primary care trusts in England. Some 80 percent of NHS budgets for commissioning services would be handed to general practitioners while private competition is introduced in the provision of care.

The liberals are skeptical, worried about private companies “cherry picking” profitable services instead of treating patients in the most need. Health minister Paul Burstow, a Liberal Democrat, defended the proposed reforms, saying that they would strip out layers of needless management and administrative costs to save some £5 billion over the next four years, “all of which we will plough straight back into patient care.”

The coalition with the Conservatives has not been popular among liberal voters. Whereas the party won nearly a quarter of the vote in last year’s general election, ahead of a controversial measure to raise undergraduate tuition fees in December, the Liberal Democrats polled at an historic low of 8 percent. In a recent local election, the party slumped from second place at the general election to sixth, winning a mere 4.2 percent of the vote.

Last month, Britain’s Health Service Ombudsman unveiled a grim report about the quality of care in the United Kingdom, lambasting “an attitude — both personal and institutional — which fails to recognize the humanity and individuality of the people concerned and to respond to them with sensitivity, compassion and professionalism.”

According to the ombudsman, NHS provision was “failing to meet even the most basic standards of care” and he blamed not so much a lack of resources rather the “culture” of the National Health Service.

If liberal backbenchers in parliament vote against the reform bill they would have a majority with the Labor opposition to halt the effort.