PATIENTS across England will be able to choose to have operations at the Countess of Chester Hospital as a key NHS reform is expanded.
Ministers are to announce that 32 foundation trusts, including the Countess, will be added to the list of local hospitals patients can choose from.
Patient choice has been one of the Government's key reforms.
Since January, patients have had a choice of at least four hospitals for treatment, one of which can be a private centre.
Many primary care trusts included more than the minimum of four on their lists, to which they will now add the 32 foundation trusts - top performing hospitals which have been given more autonomy than other hospitals.
Choice will be extended later in the year to include 15 private clinics and by 2008 patients will be able to choose any hospital in the country.
But Sam Naylor, assistant director of the patient watchdog serving West Cheshire, said: 'It's just another gimmick. It suggests there is all this fantastic choice but survey after survey shows what people want is high quality treat-ment at a local hospital.'
The Countess has been told it must reduce activities funded by the local cash-strapped primary care trusts to the tune of £8.3m.
But as a foundation trust the hospital could see the expanded market as an opportunity to make up the short-fall.
Mr Naylor said: 'It's not going to work.'
A task force has been set up under Mayur Lakhani, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, to investigate how to extend choice.
But despite the government's enthusiasm for the reforms, opinion polls have consistently rated it as a low priority for patients.
The Department of Health's own research published at the launch of patient choice in January found that eight out of 10 people knew little about it. And only 14% would be prepared to travel outside their area for treatment. firstname.lastname@example.org