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Blair: Major Flaws in Health Care

January 16, 2000

LONDON (AP) _ Battered by new controversy over Britain’s free National Health Service, Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday acknowledged major problems but ruled out U.S.-style private medical care as an alternative.

Blair said that even with stepped-up government funds it will take five years before Britain’s spending on health _ now 6.7 percent of national income _ reaches the near 10 percent spent in Germany and France.

``I’m not going to sit here and say there aren’t problems in the NHS because there are, and we’ve got to put them right,″ Blair said in a British Broadcasting Corp. television interview.

Dogged by the soaring costs of an aging population and expensive advances in medical science, the National Health Service has spelled trouble for successive British governments.

For two weeks, newspapers have blazoned reports of people being turned away from hospitals during a national outbreak of flu, shortages of intensive care beds, lengthening queues for surgery, and postponed operations.

The case of a 73-year-old woman with throat cancer, Mavis Skeet, has attracted national attention. Her operation at a state hospital in Leeds, central England, was postponed four times during the past five weeks and doctors say the cancer has now spread and is inoperable.

``All our hopes for our mother have been taken away in the cruelest of ways,″ her daughter, Jane Skeet, wrote in London’s Sunday Mirror.

The controversy has restarted debates over whether Britain should introduce some form of charging for health care, encourage private medical insurance, or simply raise taxes.

``The idea that private health care is going to help us when two-thirds of the patients in the hospital beds are over 65 is an illusion,″ said Blair, adding that the only answer lay in ``rebuilding the National Health Service.″

``We should spend more, but we have to do it accompanied by reform,″ he said.

Opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague said that Blair’s Labor government has ``betrayed one of the basic promises they made to the country″ during national elections in 1997.

Like Labor, successive Tory governments increased health spending, now running at $65.6 billion a year while criticism of the service grew.

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