The ideology of health care provision.
Amid the junior doctors strike of 2016, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt was embroiled in a conflict with the BMA over doctors’ contracts designed to address a 7day NHS. This is the surface issue but sits upon a deeper ideological conflict, one that many of the doctors will be unaware of but will suspect, especially if they have read Alysson Pollock’s works on the privatisation and corporatisation of the NHS. Hunt argued he has a ‘mandate’ to introduce a 7 day NHS and perhaps realises that if this policy cannot be introduced, the balance of power over the future of the NHS will swing back towards the BMA and other health professional groups. The irony is that the BMA opposed the introduction of the NHS back in 1948 but now is one of the strongest supporters. Since 2012 however, the NHS has been dismantled and been replaced with privatised and corporatized service provision, with ‘patient choice’ and ‘patient safety’ being used as the ideological veil which masks the corporate face. People have not noticed this detail because so far ‘free at the point of delivery’ is still in place, but this principle, along with universal and comprehensive cover, is under threat. The government remain the almost monopoly purchaser of health services on our behalf but for how long? The care home crisis points in the direction of travel. This will be withdrawal of state funding and reliance on private provision which will not be ‘free at the point of delivery’.
In 2005 ‘Direct Democracy – an agenda for a new model party’ was published, the authors include the current health secretary Jeremy Hunt. It is not government policy and does not represent the full range of conservative views. The Tory party itself is home to those of a ‘one nation’ persuasion who mix ideas of ‘noblesse oblige’ with a modicum of a social welfare, safety net, public service ethos. It is also home to ‘neoliberalism’ rooted in anti State sentiment based on freedom of the individual and free market economics. This ideology can be clearly seen in the 2012 book ‘Britannia Unchained – Global lessons for growth and prosperity’ which argues for further free market economics based on a bonfire of employment laws. The book suggests:
“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
This one quote conveys the disdain neoliberals have in general for those less well paid, less “successful” and less powerful than themselves. Boris Johnson’s speech in 2013 on the impossibility of equality being based on differences in IQ, implied some people are too stupid to get ahead. This individualises issues, while ignoring structures of class, gender, ethnicity and privilege. He said:
“And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”
Two ideas are core here: that the working class and the poor are so because they are more lazy and stupid than the ruling class, and that the answer to this is to increase competition and to use inequality as incentives for personal improvement. Of course said like that to the electorate, it would seriously threaten voter support. Instead the discourse of market efficiency, effectiveness and choice is used to justify privatization and corporatization of public services. The message to the public is clear: take responsibility for education, health, social care and housing. It is down to individuals and families to provide by working hard and being prudent.
The arguments over the NHS have to be seen within this wider context. At heart, many in the current Tory party viewed the state run NHS as anathema. As such they have succeeded in dismantling the post war structure of the NHS following the Health and Social Care Act 2012. This allowed for private providers to bid for the provision of health services but keeps in place, for now, principles such as ‘free at the point of delivery’.
According to Alysson Pollock, the Health and Social Care Act 2012:
- Removed the duty of the Secretary of State for health to secure and provide health care for all.
- Introduced US style insurance schemes.
- Gives the secretary of state legal powers to create a market, allows providers to pick and choose which patients will get care, services to be provided and what will be charged for.
A market has been introduced into health service delivery, and markets operate through risk selection and appraisal resulting in fragmentation of provision. That is to say a market provider needs to pick and choose which patients are profitable in competition with other providers. We now have clinical commissioning groups modelled on insurance based lines. Those with high risk or multiple needs will be expensive to provide care for.
The ‘NHS’ is now fragmented in which:
- Services are broken up and put out to tender to commercial companies.
- Commercial shareholders have new legal powers to decide who gets care, what the get and what they pay for.
This current state of affairs is not enough for neoliberal thought. So what is the vision of this group of neoliberal Tories? How did this happen?
Direct Democracy argues:
“Several other countries operate political systems based on localism and direct democracy. Two outstanding examples – one much smaller than the United Kingdom and one many times larger – are Switzerland and the United States. In their different ways, both states respect the principles of the dispersal of power, the direct election of public officials and the use of the referendum as a legislative tool. Our proposals for the devolution of power directly to the citizen – notably in the fields of education and health care – have also been successfully trialled abroad, often in unlikely places. No less corporatist a state than Sweden has introduced a form of school voucher, while almost every state in Europe, at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall, now provides for an element of health insurance”.
This goes to the heart of the matter, note how the US and the Swiss are held up as models. The principles of localism and direct democracy are invoked as justifications hiding their argument and belief about market mechanisms. The United States is a beacon for the dispersal of power? One cannot expect anything other than this nonsense from neoliberals, wilfully ignorant as they surely must be of the work of C Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas, David Harvey, Thomas Picketty, Graham Scambler, and Yanis Varoufakis? This also ignores the literature on social inequalities and inequalities in health and the social and political determinants of health. At this point we must also point to the wealth of feminist and post-colonial literature on ‘power’. In short it is an invocation of bourgeois patriarchal perspective on the exercise of power which blinds them to actuality.
As for Switzerland, the OECD reports that compared to the UK’s 9.3 % of GDP, the Swiss pay 11.4%. The UK used to pay under 6% but has seen a rise, not totally due to actual health spending but to cater for administration and profit for private companies. The US spends 16.9% (OECD 2014) and has introduced ‘Obama care’ to address the plight of uninsured americans. Obama care is an outcome of class struggle which has been hotly contested in the ‘land of the free’.
‘Direct Democracy’ claims to hold to three principles:
- Decisions should be taken as closely to the people they affect.
- Law makers should be directly accountable.
- The citizen should enjoy maximum freedom from state control.
On the face of it who would argue with that? Certainly not anarchists, socialists or libertarians. The problem is that these principles exist within a social and historical context, one characterised by imbalances of power along class, gender and ethnic lines and this cannot deal with the reality on the ground. Hunt et al are blind to the context in which ‘men of wealth buy men of power’, a world in which the capitalist class executive and the political power elite exercise a new class/command dynamic which neoliberal ‘reforms’ ushered in since about the 1980’s especially in the US and UK.
Yanis Varoufakis (2016) clearly discusses the effects of such things as the “Nixon Shock’ on the post war global financial settlement, the outcome being that the ‘strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. Global health corporations need new markets and looked to the UK’s NHS as a source of rich pickings. This is the context in which Hunt’s bourgeois democracy operates.
- Decisions about who provides health care, what health care looks like and where it is provided are taken by unelected clinical commissioning groups operating within a profit driven market context.
- Patients do not have an electable secretary of state who has a statutory obligation to provide health care services.
- Freedom from state control for health service provision has morphed into control via corporate decision making.
Direct Democracy (2005) argues:
‘The problem with the NHS is not one of resources. Rather it is the system remains centrally run, state monopoly designed over half a century ago’ (p74).
Clearly this is a statement that ‘the system’ needs to go. The resource issue in the context of increasing demands and costs is brushed aside. This remark now looks questionable at best in 2016.
“We should fund patients either through the tax system or by way of universal insurance, to purchase health care from the provider of their choice. Those without means would have their contributions supplemented or paid for by the State.” (p74).
Holding on to a notion of ‘free at the point of delivery’ implied here, it is clear that private provision is to be introduced. The language is anodyne, context free, taking no notice of what private provision might look like, who would provide it and what the consequences of the inevitability of a market might be. The State at least has a role in providing for the poor. The writers of this document are part of the political power elite, or may wish to be, and the coherence of interests with the corporate/capitalist class executive are hidden. Those who sell insurance have not been lobbying for this change then? A bit of research into who benefits from this change might prove insightful. Are there links between corporate interest and the politicians who are driving the changes?
Hunt et al feared the NHS would only be second to the US in terms of % of GDP spent. This has not occurred. They report a study ranking the UK 18 of 19 countries. This is selective in the extreme, and is now way out of date.
Many of the critiques they evoke of the NHS are a result of the rise of new public management, or ‘managerialism, introduced into the system by previous governments both New Labour and Tory. For about three decades managerial control, targets and distrust of professionals have eroded the ability of the NHS to be the best in the world. The judgment about the efficiency and effectiveness of health services partly depends on what criteria are being used to judge them. The % spend of GDP is a crude figure as it hides a plethora of costs and profits.
Other measures of success could include universality of access, comprehensiveness of cover, mortality and morbidity outcomes, and the publics’ safety and satisfaction.
Mark Britnall has written ‘In search of the Perfect Health System’ (2015) of the complexity of comparing health systems. Britnall is no Tory ideologue and describes his approach as more brown mud than blue sky thinking:
He also wrote in 2011 before the 2012 Act:
“[o]f course, the vast majority of care – quite rightly in the UK context – will always be provided by public sector organisations (currently, about 95% of it) and will be paid out of taxation” and “[t]he issue of competition, which now seems to be conflated with privatisation, is unhelpful and misleading and, at best, only a small part of reform. Competition can exist without privatisation and the NHS can maintain its historic role in funding care while dealing with a richer variety of providers – public sector, social enterprise and private organisations”.
This 2011 comment predated the 2012 Act and can be seen as a statement of intent than actuality on his part. In 2010 there was some controversy over his statements in the US about private provision.
One area in which private provision is facing severe challenges is the care home sector.
Roy Lilley, writes a daily blog, and has considerable experience in the health service and with private sector organisations. He is no left wing radical. He writes in ‘They don’t matter’ (3rd May 2016) that success in private provision in the community has been ‘patchy’, citing Circle’s loss of £5 million and the paying of another £2 million to get out of the Hinchinbrooke contract, while SERCO and Bupa ‘bailed out’ of provision leaving Virgin clinging on. He argues that the private sector can be nimble and quick to adapt, but of course needs to make a profit.
However, the largest care home provider, Four Seasons, is in talks to ‘restructure its debt’ as they face a 39% drop in profits. Most of their ‘customers’ have their fees paid by social services. This amounts to some local authorities paying £385 per week which is just not enough. The living wage is also an issue for them, they have over 30,000 staff but with no way of adjusting prices to pay for the increase and with no operating surplus. It has a debt of £510 million. If Four Seasons go broke they have 450 care homes at risk.
The bottom line is that health and social care costs money. There is not enough money in the system to pay for the care required. Some private families are paying £1,250 per week. Company Watch data which covers 20,000 homes, indicates that there is a funding black hole of half a billion pounds. This is market failure due to inadequate funding by design. It is almost as if the government is deliberately forcing people to find the money themselves either through savings, insurance or property while state funding through local authorities is slowly wound down.
Mark Britnall’s approach is scholarly, based in experience managing health care organisations and a deep knowledge and overview of many health systems. However, is Britnall sufficiently aware of the political economy of neoliberalism and its agenda for health? Roy Lilley’s highlighting of the care home crisis clearly shows the political, austerity driven nature of the issue.
‘Direct Democracy’ and ‘Britannia Unchained’ are ideological approaches to health and social care. Whether Hunt has the temper for addressing Britnall’s insights or whether he still stands by the document he co-wrote is anyone’s guess. However, I know where the smart money would go. His face down of the doctors is more to do with power and who exercises it rather than the future of the health service as we knew it. If the neoliberals can get away with it, then free at the point of delivery will be severely challenged perhaps using spurious arguments stigmatising drug users, alcoholics, smokers, the obese, self harmers, self inflicted sports injuries, prostitutes, the promiscuous and Johnson’s ‘stupid’ as a wedge driven between the deserving and the undeserving ill. The care home crisis indicates that older people are ignored and the costs increasingly privatised as the state withdraws, or should we say abdicates, support. The NHS was to socialise risk, to spread its cost across the whole population. Instead we are rapidly moving towards individualising risk and private insurance based provision as the state withers away.