The National Health Service in the UK is "rationing" hearing aids, hip and knee replacements and vasectomy operations to try and cut costs, an investigation has found.
Access to treatment has been restricted in the 12 months, with senior doctors warning of 'unacceptable' decisions being taken, say more than 1 in 3 general practitioners. These rationing measures affect the most vulnerable population and the decision to restrict hearing aids is 'cruel', said charities.
In order to meet the approaching deficit the health service is attempting to make £22bn efficiency savings by 2020. Areas with the worst financial problems have been ordered to be ready with emergency plans to cut spending.
According to investigations it was found that there are widespread rationing measures being introduced in order to bring the costs down. Out of 652 general practitioners, 36% in the last year had experienced increased restrictions to services.
These rationing measures are indicative that NHS North Staffordshire clinical commissioning group will not fund hearing aids for those with mild hearing losses. A lifeline for some of the most vulnerable is being cut off and a feeling of being opposed was expressed by Charity Action on Hearing Loss.
As part of efforts to save £1m NHS North East Essex CCG is restricting vasectomies, female sterilization procedure and spinal physiotherapy.
NHS Basildon and Brentwood CCG is planning to stop funding for patients with "mild or moderate" hearing loss, and also lowered the number of vasectomy referrals they will be paying for. To save £1m Mid Essex CCG plans to reduce access to procedures including hip and knee operations.
Eligibility for some common operations such as hip and knee replacement has been tightened up by a number of areas. Obese patients must lose weight and smokers must give up their habit of smoking before hip and knee replacement procedures. NHS Great Yarmouth and Waveney CCG say such restrictions may be expanded to cover other operations.
Such decisions could not be defended, said Dr James Kingsland, president of the National Association of Primary Care. He said: "The idea of rationing necessary care in a service that is free at the point of use is just unacceptable. Any health commissioning body looking at rationing services need to question whether they are fit for purpose."
Marcus Warnes, Interim Accountable Officer at North Staffordshire CCG, said: "Our decision to introduce an eligibility criteria for hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss was not financially driven but clinically-led and based on a significant volume of research and extensive engagement with local people, stakeholders and a variety of national bodies with specialist expertise."
Dr Gary Sweeney, NHS North East Essex CCG chairman said: "We have no choice other than to stay within budget. If we do not implement these decisions we will have to select other services to restrict."
A Department of Health spokesman said: "Blanket restrictions on treatment are unacceptable and all decisions on treatment should be made by doctors based on a patient's individual clinical needs."