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Britain's Health Service to Pay for Britons Treated Abroad - 2001-08-27

Britain's beleaguered National Health Service (NHS) has bowed to a European court order that it pay for medical treatment abroad for Britons on long waiting lists for surgery. There is growing dissatisfaction over the state of health care in Britain.

In a major policy shift, the British National Health Service says it is now prepared to pay for medical care abroad for thousands of patients on waiting lists for surgery.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn announced the decision following a ruling by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The court says patients who face what it calls "undue delay" in their home countries can seek treatment elsewhere in the European Union.

Mr. Milburn says some British laws will have to be changed before the new policy takes effect. He promises that no patient will be sent abroad against their wishes.

There are more than one million Britons on waiting lists for operations. Some 40,000 of them face delays of more than one year.

The chief of the National Health Service Confederation, Steve Thorton, said on British radio that there is a crisis in health care. "We have a real problem at the moment in the NHS with capacity," he said. "We're trying to build it, but it will take years to get right. And in the meantime, I think we need to do something about the numbers of people who are in pain and are waiting."

Mr. Thorton says Germany and France could help treat ailing Britons, but care must be taken to bridge any language and cultural barriers.

Patient-rights groups and media commentators say Britain should be embarrassed at having to turn to its European neighbors for health care, and should respond by expanding health services as quickly as possible.

The government-run health care industry has been hit by almost daily revelations of incompetence or malpractice. In one of the latest examples, an elderly man went to a London emergency room this month after suffering burns. He was kept on a stretcher for nine hours, and when a doctor finally saw him, he was already dead.