By Martin Kelly
Scottish Health Minister Alex Neil has hit back at BBC claims that the SNP has broken a pledge to reduce privatisation costs in the NHS.
Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, the MSP challenged a suggestion by BBC Scotland that the SNP had failed to meet a pledge made in 2007 to clamp down on private healthcare spending.
Interviewing Mr Neil, BBC Scotland reporter Hayley Millar pointed to a "dramatic rise" in NHS spending on private healthcare and said: "When the SNP came to power back in 2007 they promised to clamp down on such spending, but the latest figures suggest there has been a sixty per cent increase,"
Responding to the interviewer’s suggestion that the SNP, "hadn’t exactly lived up to this promise" Mr Neil said that since 2007 the SNP had indeed clamped down "very successfully" on private healthcare spending.
"Over the piece we have actually done that very successfully"
The SNP Minister explained that the temporary increase, which he blamed on a capacity shortfall left behind by the last administration, was less than 0.5 per cent of the total NHS budget.
Mr Neil also pointed to what he claimed was the biggest private drain on the Scottish NHS which was the PFI legacy left behind by Labour.
"Ironically the biggest waste of money in the private sector is the £200 million a year in PFI charges we have to make which we inherited and the contracts are such we can’t even get out of [them].
"That’s the biggest scandal in terms of NHS resources."
The issue of increased private healthcare costs resulted from a Freedom of Information request made on behalf of BBC Scotland. Figures obtained by the BBC showed that the costs of private healthcare had increased from £25m to £40m for the last year.
According to BBC Scotland’s health correspondent Eleanor Bradford, the increased costs were due to a "waiting time scandal". The reporter also echoed claims made earlier by her colleague and implied that the SNP had broken a pledge to invest in the NHS.
In a report for the flagship news programme Reporting Scotland, Ms Bradford said: "When the SNP came to power it promised NHS cash would be invested in the NHS, not the private sector."
Two NHS boards were named by the BBC as having been responsible for the bulk of the increase, NHS Lothian and NHS Grampian. NHS Lothian had already predicted an increased one off spend in order to clear a waiting time backlog after it was found to have manipulated waiting times last year. The actual cost of £12.5m was higher than the prediction of £10m.
NHS Grampian had increased its private healthcare costs to £6.5m, which was three times the previous year.
However NHS Grampian challenged a claim by the BBC reporter that it too was spending more on private healthcare because of waiting time problems.
Responding to claims by the BBC Scotland reporter, NHS Grampian said the increase in spending on private healthcare last year was "to meet the specialist needs of patients, for example for complex services that are not available in Grampian e.g. specialist mental health services - and to ensure that patients are seen within the treatment time guarantee targets introduced in 2012/2013".
It added: "We understand that waiting times are important to patients and that most patients prefer to be treated as close to home as possible.
"The NHS Grampian Board recently agreed a £16m investment programme that will increase capacity by building new theatres and employing more doctors, nurses and support staff. The additional local capacity will be available in 2014."
The row between the health board, which initially refused the FoI request, and the BBC reporter follows inaccurate claims made by Ms Bradford earlier this year when she accused the board of failing thousands of osteoporosis patients.
In January, Ms Bradford claimed that: "As many as 3,500 people at risk of bone fractures are waiting eight months for a scan to detect osteoporosis at a clinic in Aberdeen."
However, Newsnet Scotland discovered the statement was false - the 3,500 figure was the number of patients treated by the centre in a year and not the number who were affected by the 32 week delay. It subsequently emerged that, far from 3,500 people having been affected by the scanner problem at NHS Grampian as claimed by BBC Scotland, the real figure was closer to one hundred.
Newsnet Scotland also discovered that the information had been published on NHS Grampian’s own website since October 3rd 2011 – fully 15 months before the BBC Scotland reporter revealed the 'scandal'.
NHS Grampian put out a detailed statement following the BBC report which refuted all of the allegations made by Eleanor Bradford in no uncertain terms.
Later that month, in another attack on the Scottish government, Ms Bradford claimed she had found "further evidence" of "loopholes" in the Scottish government’s waiting times policy citing breast cancer patients who waited 15 weeks for follow up radiotherapy.
However, Newsnet Scotland discovered that according to specialists, there is in fact no definitive medical evidence to suggest that a delay in radiotherapy treatment after surgery hampers recovery.
The latest attack on the Scottish NHS follows claims last week by BBC Scotland that waiting times in Accident and Emergency were the longest ever. It followed publication of statistics showing that in December 2012, A & E waiting times for treatment within four hours was 89.7% - well short of the Scottish government target of 98%.
However Newsnet Scotland discovered that a limited survey on waiting times from April 2006 indicated a target for four hour treatment of just 88% - lower than December 2012.