- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

LONDON Prime Minister Tony Blair headed yesterday toward perhaps his biggest political crisis as his government sought to rescue Britain's ailing National Health Service with an infusion of billions in taxpayer dollars.
The health service already absorbs about $74 billion from government accounts each year, but patients still have to wait up to 15 months for routine operations such as hip replacements. Doctors and nurses are fleeing for better pay abroad, and hospitals are regularly criticized for a lack of hygiene.
A report commissioned by Mr. Blair's chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, accused a succession of Labor and Conservative governments alike of systematically underfunding the NHS over the past 30 years by nearly $300 billion relative to the rest of Europe.
Mr. Brown will today present to Parliament the government's budget for the next year, and it is expected to contain plans for increasing taxes by between $7 billion and $11 billion with much of it going into health and education services.
Plans to boost taxes have already triggered criticism of Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown some of it from within their own ruling Labor Party for breaking an unwritten pledge not to return to the "tax and spend" policies that pushed the country close to bankruptcy under Labor prime ministers in the 1960s and 1970s.
A pair of opinion polls disclosed deep skepticism about increasing taxes to pay for the health service.
In one by the ICM polling organization, seven of 10 persons interviewed wanted the government to look at "alternative methods" to fund the service, and six out of 10 didn't believe extra money would improve matters. Only 7 percent thought it would make a difference for the better.
In a separate poll by the NOP organization, 49 percent of those questioned said they wanted tax cuts, not increases. A total of 46 percent supported a tax increase to support health and education.
At the same time, the issue threatened to worsen feuding within the government, notably between the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer. One political source said Mr. Blair's office was worried that Mr. Brown's tax increases would "spark a middle-class backlash" that would, in turn, exacerbate the government's decline in popularity.
Meanwhile, the country's health service is reeling under the impact of various critical reports. One cites the government's pride in pointing out that waiting time in British hospitals is down to a maximum of 15 months. In France and Germany there are no waiting lists at all.
Despite the $74 billion a year that goes into the NHS, a figure that is destined to increase with the government's new taxation, a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that Britain, at 6.8 percent, ranks 19th on a list of national spending on health.

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