BMA head Mark Porter's NHS claims rejected

Image caption The Department of Health said the NHS was showing it could "meet the financial challenge set"

The government has rejected British Medical Association claims that the NHS is risking patients' health by rationing drugs and operations.

BMA head Dr Mark Porter told the Guardian that financial pressure on the NHS meant its "offer" had shrunk and it was no longer a comprehensive service.

Fears patients could be harmed if they were denied treatment or tests were now "a realistic concern", he said.

The government said it was increasing the NHS budget in real terms.

He said localised rationing of access to some procedures not deemed worthwhile by the NHS would become more widespread with further pressures on budgets.

"You see it happening in examples now, but it's when it becomes service-wide in a few years' time - if the current policies continue - that the population will notice in the wider sense," he said.

Image caption Dr Porter was elected as BMA council chairman in June

He added: "We can see the effect on people to whom we have to say 'I'm sorry, this treatment is no longer available'."

He said a reduction of services offered by the NHS was being accelerated by government health reforms, a growing number of private firms providing services and a need to save £20bn by 2015.

Those pressures could also lead to a more fragmented NHS which could undo improvements made to the quality of care over the past few years, he added.

'Morally wrong'

Dr Porter, who was elected to the BMA post in June, also complained that some GPs' surgeries were being offered financial incentives to send fewer patients for tests and treatments in hospital.

"It's morally wrong and professionally wrong," he said.

"Doctors' minds should be on what's best for the patient, not on whether the PCT [Primary Care Trust] will sub them for certain types of financial behaviour."

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, meanwhile, said that "just as Labour predicted, the N in NHS is now under sustained attack".

"Doctors warned David Cameron that his reforms would lead to increased rationing of treatments, an accelerating postcode lottery and widespread privatisation of services," he added.

"The prime minister arrogantly waved them away but, as Dr Porter identifies, these fears are fast becoming a reality."

But a spokesman for the Department of Health said that if local health bodies stopped patients from having treatments on the basis of cost alone "we will take action against them".

"If patients need treatment, they should get it when they want it and where they want it," he said.

He added: "Last year we made it clear that it is unacceptable for the NHS to impose blanket bans for treatment on the basis of costs.

"That is why we banned PCTs from putting caps on the number of people who could have certain operations."

He said the NHS was "treating more people" and the government had increased its budget, "investing an extra £12.5bn in the NHS over the course of this Parliament".

"But the NHS can and must be more efficient and we are already seeing results."

He said the NHS made £5.8bn in savings in 2011/12 "while keeping waiting times low" and it was "performing more diagnostic tests and planned operations and reducing infections even further".

"The NHS is showing that it can meet the financial challenge set," the spokesman.

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