Although the government is reluctant to discuss the issue, hopscotching back and forth between private and public care has long been standard here for those who can afford it. But a few recent cases have exposed fundamental contradictions between policy and practice in the system, and tested its founding philosophy to its very limits.Imagine that. You have a terrible disease and either can afford to buy the extra drugs, but the government thinks it's unfair that you are richer than poorer patients and so will block you from getting the drugs that could save your life. Or maybe you're not really all that rich, but like this poor woman, you're willing to sell your house on the chance that this drug will save your life.
One such case was Debbie Hirst’s. Her breast cancer had metastasized, and the health service would not provide her with Avastin, a drug that is widely used in the United States and Europe to keep such cancers at bay. So, with her oncologist’s support, she decided last year to try to pay the $120,000 cost herself, while continuing with the rest of her publicly financed treatment.
By December, she had raised $20,000 and was preparing to sell her house to raise more. But then the government, which had tacitly allowed such arrangements before, put its foot down. Mrs. Hirst heard the news from her doctor.
“He looked at me and said: ‘I’m so sorry, Debbie. I’ve had my wrists slapped from the people upstairs, and I can no longer offer you that service,’ ” Mrs. Hirst said in an interview.
“I said, ‘Where does that leave me?’ He said, ‘If you pay for Avastin, you’ll have to pay for everything’ ” — in other words, for all her cancer treatment, far more than she could afford.
Officials said that allowing Mrs. Hirst and others like her to pay for extra drugs to supplement government care would violate the philosophy of the health service by giving richer patients an unfair advantage over poorer ones.
Patients “cannot, in one episode of treatment, be treated on the N.H.S. and then allowed, as part of the same episode and the same treatment, to pay money for more drugs,” the health secretary, Alan Johnson, told Parliament.
“That way lies the end of the founding principles of the N.H.S.,” Mr. Johnson said.
This is what happens with a nationalized health plan. Do Americans want to be told by the government that they can't spend their own money on their own treatment? I don't think so. And Mrs. Hirst isn't alone.
“Of course it’s going on in the N.H.S. all the time, but a lot of it is hidden — it’s not explicit,” said Dr. Paul Charlson, a general practitioner in Yorkshire and a member of Doctors for Reform, a group that is highly critical of the health service. Last year, he was a co-author of a paper laying out examples of how patients with the initiative and the money dip in and out of the system, in effect buying upgrades to their basic free medical care.Ironically, the NHS is now willing to pay for Mrs. Hirst's treatment because her cancer has metastasized and she's now so sick that they're willing to pick up the tab for Avastin. Sadly, with her cancer spreading, they might not have to pay for very long.
“People swap from public to private sector all the time, and they’re topping up for virtually everything,” Dr. Charlson said in an interview. For instance, he said, a patient put on a five-month waiting list to see an orthopedic surgeon may pay $250 for a private consultation, and then switch back to the health service for the actual operation from the same doctor.
“Or they’ll buy an M.R.I. scan because the wait is so long, and then take the results back to the N.H.S.,” Dr. Charlson said.
In his paper, he also wrote about a 46-year-old woman with breast cancer who paid $250 for a second opinion when the health service refused to provide her with one; an elderly man who spent thousands of dollars on a new hearing aid instead of enduring a yearlong wait on the health service; and a 29-year-old woman who, with her doctor’s blessing, bought a three-month supply of Tarceva, a drug to treat pancreatic cancer, for more than $6,000 on the Internet because she could not get it through the N.H.S.
Asked why these were different from cases like Mrs. Hirst’s, a spokeswoman for the health service said no officials were available to comment.
In any case, the rules about private co-payments, as they are called, in cancer care are contradictory and hard to understand, said Nigel Edwards, the director of policy for the N.H.S. Confederation, which represents hospitals and other health care providers. “I’ve had conflicting advice from different lawyers,” he said, “but it does seem like a violation of natural justice to say that either you don’t get the drug you want, or you have to pay for all your treatment.”
Karol Sikora, a professor of cancer medicine at the Imperial College School of Medicine and one of Dr. Charlson’s co-authors, said that co-payments were particularly prevalent in cancer care. Armed with information from the Internet and patients’ networks, cancer patients are increasingly likely to demand, and pay for, cutting-edge drugs that the health service considers too expensive to be cost-effective.