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Why the Tories will have to consider NHS charges after 2015

With George Osborne determined to avoid further tax rises, patient charges will be the only way to solve the health funding crisis.

Consultant Gynaecologist Ertan Saridogan gives Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt a demonstration of a laparoscopy system during a tour of University College Hospital. Photograph: Getty Images.

Another Spending Review has been settled with the NHS again protected from cuts. But the longer austerity continues, the harder it will be for the government to justify special treatment for some departments. As last week's Resolution Foundation report showed, if the current ring-fences around health, international development and schools are maintained, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by 2018, with a 64% cut to the Foreign Office, a 46% cut to the Home Office and a 36% cut to defence. Something will have to give. And with the Tories reportedly planning to rule out further tax rises, it will be even harder for any area to escape Osborne's axe (should he still be in the Treasury after May 2015). 

There is a strong case for making an exception for the NHS. Polls show that it is the most popular spending area with voters and the above-average rate of inflation in the health service means it requires real-terms rises just to stand still. As today's SMF paper on the Spending Review notes, "A ‘flat real’ settlement for the NHS is therefore not what it sounds like since it is defined with reference to an irrelevant price index. To keep up with rising input costs, growing demand, and the public’s expectations for an adequate healthcare system, growth in spending on health has historically outstripped GDP growth." 

By historic standards, the NHS is undergoing austerity. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4%, but over the current Spending Review it will rise by an average of just 0.5%. As a result, in the words of the SMF, there has been "an effective cut of £16bn from the health budget in terms of what patients expect the NHS to deliver". Should the NHS receive flat real settlements for the three years from 2015-16 (as seems probable), this cut will increase to £34bn or 23%.

Without further tax rises, the inevitable result will be a significant fall in the quality and quantity of services. But with the Tories seemingly determined to avoid these, another option rears its head: patient charges. At today's British Medical Association conference, that it is precisely what doctors will propose. Gordon Matthews, a member of the BMA consultants’ committee, will say: "A publicly funded and free-at-the-point-of- delivery NHS cannot afford all available diagnostics and treatments." Outlining the funding crisis that I've just described, he will add: "Everyone recognises that we’re in times of austerity, there isn’t a lot of money around, while public expectations have gone up and up, medical treatments have become more expensive and there isn’t an easy way to square the circle."

Matthew will propose drawing up a list of core services that will be provided for free, with charges introduced for others. If this seems heretical, it's worth remembering that our "free" health service hasn't been truly free since Labour chancellor Hugh Gaitskell introduced prescription charges for glasses and dentures in his 1951 Budget (although they have been abolished in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Morally speaking, there is no difference between these fees and co-payments. There is also growing public recognition that a high-quality NHS will need to be paid for. A recent Ipsos MORI poll for The King's Fund found that there is support for introducing charges for treatments that are not perceived as "clinically necessary" (such as cosmetic surgery and elective caesarean sections), for people thought to "misuse services" (e.g. missing appointments or arriving drunk at A&E), for patients requiring treatment as a result of "lifestyle choices" (e.g. smoking and obesity) and for 'top-ups' to non-clinical aspects of care (e.g. private rooms and other 'hotel' services). 

For now, the Tories insist that they will not go down this road. After Malcolm Grant, the chair of the NHS Commissioning Board warned last month that the next government would have to consider introducing "new charging systems" unless "the economy has picked up sufficiently", Jeremy Hunt told MPs: "Professor Malcolm Grant did not say that. What he actually said was that if the NHS considered charging, he would oppose it. I agree with him; I would oppose it, too." But just as pensioner benefits, once considered untouchable, are now being targeted by all parties for cuts, it seems increasingly unlikely that a "free NHS" will survive the age of austerity.