NHS reform plans will strengthen NHS, says government
The government has rejected a warning by doctors' leaders that its planned health reforms could undermine the long-term future of the NHS in England.
It set out plans in July to give GPs control of much of the budget, while scrapping two tiers of managers.
The British Medical Association said it was not against the whole vision, but had concerns the changes could affect the service's "stability and future".
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said it was right to proceed with the reforms.
He said: "There are many GPs across the country who are keen to make the transition quickly, others want to know more about how it's going to work before they implement it," he said.
"This is what the consultation process is about, everyone coming forward to say how can we make this work."
He added that the plans were aimed at making care better for patients.
But the BMA's warning sparks the start of what promises to be a delicate balancing act for ministers.
The union's criticisms - made in its official response to July's White Paper - contrast with its initial response over the summer when it said it was "ready, willing and able".
And they come as the government faces a legal challenge from the union Unison.
The public sector union is seeking a judicial review over the way the government is handling the changes.
The official consultation period will end later this month, after which ministers are likely to start formal talks with BMA negotiators about implementing the changes.
The government wants to start piloting the GP consortiums, which will take charge of the budget from the soon-to-be abolished primary care trusts, this financial year. Full roll-out will follow within two years.
But it is this pace of change which is one of the problems, according to the BMA.
It said the timetable could threaten the £20bn savings the health service has to make by 2014.
The BMA also took issue with the "obsession" with competition, saying GPs would be set against hospitals - one of the objectives of the changes is to get more care done more cheaply outside hospitals.
Many doctors also fear the plans will lead to the increased involvement of the private sector - and ultimately damage the doctor-patient relationship as the public could start viewing their own GPs as rationers of services.
The BMA said there needed to be a clear distinction between individual GPs and the consortiums.
Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the BMA's GPs committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that his organisation had "serious concerns".
He added: "Patients want to see their doctors and other healthcare professionals, in general practice and in hospitals, collaborating with one another - not competing with one another."
BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum said that there "were proposals in the White Paper that doctors can support and want to work with".
He added: "But there is also much that would be potentially damaging.
"The BMA has consistently argued that clinicians should have more autonomy to shape services for their patients, but pitting them against each other in a market-based system creates waste, bureaucracy and inefficiency."
However, some doctors remain supportive of the planned changes, such as Dr Simon Brown, of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, who is taking part in one of the pilot schemes.
He told BBC Breakfast that control of the NHS's budget and purchasing decisions would benefit from the "clinical input" that doctors bring, something he said "had been largely absent until now".
Dr Brown added: "I'm confident that actually we can introduce some changes that will make a very positive impact on my patients."
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "This backs up Labour's warnings since the White Paper was published."
He warned that, if Health Secretary Andrew Lansley pressed on with his plans, he could expect the "fight of his life".
And Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, a health think tank, suggested the BMA was right to highlight some of the issues.
"I think there is quite a lot of worry in the health service that these changes are too much too fast," she said.
"The principle of giving GPs, or doctors, budgets to manage is a quite good one, I think there is a lot of agreement about that.
"But the speed at which these changes are occurring - the fact that £70bn of public funds is going to be given to practices who are not used to handling this amount of money - is, I think, worrying."