§ 2.59 p.m.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ What plans they have to extend the public/private partnership between the National Health Service and private hearing aid dispensers so that more private sector companies can help audiology departments to reduce waiting times for digital hearing aids.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)
My Lords, the existing contract with two private companies was established following a public tendering process and runs until October 2005, at which point it will be open to review. The current public/private partnership is proving very successful, with more than 12,000 patients already off the NHS waiting list and more than 50,000 set to benefit by April 2006. Both companies have the capacity 469 to see more patients if local NHS trusts choose to commission additional services, although there are currently no plans to extend the partnership.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and, in passing, congratulate the Government and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People on the tremendous efforts that they have already made to get digital hearing aids to NHS patients. However, is not the Minister a little disturbed by the recent survey by the British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists, which reports an average delay of 46 weeks between a GP referral and the actual fitting of a hearing aid? In some parts of the country, the delay is as long as four years.
As we now know from the RNID that the quality of life of 3 million to 4 million people could be considerably enhanced by digital hearing aids—I believe that there have been signs of up to 41 per cent improving in hearing—is there not a strong case for involving many more than the two private companies which employ registered hearing aid dispensers to speed up the process for NHS patients?
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, I do not think that that is necessary. As I said in my Answer, the companies have the capacity to see more patients if local NHS trusts choose to commission additional services. So there is no lack of capacity in the system to supply. This Government were the first to address the fact that NHS audiology was suffering from outdated technology and long waiting times. We are to some extent the victims of our own success by introducing digital hearing aids, which were never previously available.
§ Baroness Greengross
My Lords, will the Government monitor waiting times after next year? After all, older people, who form the majority of hearing aid users, do not have time to wait for up to four years. It would be very good if we knew how that monitoring is to be carried out.
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, we intend, as we do across the NHS, to return that money to local PCTs. It will then be for NHS PCTs, which, after all, are now responsible for about 80 per cent of expenditure on the NHS, to ensure that their services meet the needs of their communities.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, I declare an interest as the president of the RNID. Does not my noble friend agree that the scheme compiled by the RNID and his department is a tremendous success? So far, it has given 250,000 deaf and hard of hearing people a digital hearing aid free, whereas a short while ago they were extremely expensive. That is a great accomplishment but, as we have already heard, there are delays all over the country, bottlenecks and long queues of people. In my view, the only way to resolve that problem is for the Government to make the 470 scheme a much higher priority, allocate more resources and more skilled audiologists. Can my noble friend help on that?
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's remarks. He is quite right: the scheme has been a huge success, which is down to the work that we have accomplished in partnership with the RNID, to which I pay great tribute, and is as a result of the extra £125 million that we have invested in the area since the modernising hearing aid service started in September 2000. We are working with the RNID and others to expand NHS audiology posts, of which we acknowledge that we need more. However, as I said, it is down to PCTs, which are supposed to consider the needs of their local communities, to determine their priorities and to put resources into those which meet the needs of their local communities.
§ Baroness Neuberger
My Lords, given that the Minister has just said that it is down to local PCTs, can he say how many PCTs have taken advantage of the PPP so far; how many more patients have been treated as a result; and, indeed—although this may be a guess—how many PCTs have indicated their desire to participate in the PPP in future and the extent to which the Government may encourage PCTs to do so?
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, I can answer the first question: the latest figure that I have is that about 75 NHS trusts have committed themselves to participate in the public/private partnership, which represents almost 50 per cent of the NHS audiology departments in England. I do not have information on how many more have expressed an interest or are moving towards participating in the partnership, but we are putting a lot more money into the area. As my noble friend Lord Ashley said, about 250,000 people have already benefited from the modernising hearing aid service with new digital hearing aids.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I believe that it is our turn.
The more people who benefit and the more swiftly they do so, which is welcome, the more unfair it is to those who do not. What does the Minister propose to do about those who, scandalously, have to wait for four years?
§ Lord Warner
Well, my Lords, under this Government, some have managed to get digital hearing aids, which is more than was possible under the previous administration. I remind the noble Lord that digital hearing aids were then available only privately for up to 471 £2,500 per aid. By the PPP, we have knocked the price down to as low as £55. I do not think that we need too many lectures from the noble Lord.