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It has been a particularly grim year for the National Health Service (NHS). Always a political football, the ageing post-war welfare state has received more than its usual share of bad publicity and faced a growing barrage of criticism from disgruntled patients.These patients have been doing more than just complaining to the national newspapers. In May the National Audit Office (NAO) produced a report detailing exactly how much time and money the NHS spends fighting clinical negligence claims – too much, it concluded.Clinical negligence is clearly on the agenda. Within two months of the NAO producing its report, the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, unveiled what was described as a ‘root and branch’ reform of the system of clinical negligence. Then only last month Legal Week revealed that the National Health Service Litigation Authority (NHSLA) is to take over clinical negligence claims for the NHS in their entirety, farming out all the defendant work to its 16 panel firms.The Government’s motive for changing the system of clinical negligence is simple: money. With constant media comment about NHS funding and over-stretched doctors and nurses, it is in the political and economic interests of the NHS not to pay out billions of pounds in compensation.The NAO found that NHS clinical negligence claims were lengthy and costly. As of March 2000 there were about 23,000 outstanding claims worth around £2.6bn. On top of that the audit office estimated that a further £1.3bn would be required for settlement of negligence cases that had already occurred but had not yet gone to law. Cases tend to take an average of five-and-a-half years to settle, the report said. The total annual charge to the NHS accounts for the provisional settling of claims has risen by 700% since 1995-96.

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